Power and Authority

By: Bill Withers
Role: Community Exceleration! Team

Hierarchy seems to be wired into us humans. My nephew’s five-year-old daughter overheard her parents discussing life insurance. She came into the room and tugged at her father’s sleeve: “Daddy, if Mommy dies, who’s in charge, you or me?”

Little Sarah had a good idea: rather than assuming what’s what, get it clear in advance. In many business situations, it is clear who the boss is. There is a title or an organizational chart, and we know what we have to do.

More and more in our organizations, though, we are called upon to lead when there is no clear line of authority. Even the most collegial of superiors has the benefit of the invisible and unmentioned 900-pound gorilla in the room: if you don’t do what I need you to do, I can fire you. Without the clear designations of rank and title, things can get murky.

Most good advice about how to lead when you are not officially the boss is about some combination of contracting, sponsorship, and relationship building. We teach project managers, inside consultants and others who would lead peers or superiors to follow Sarah’s lead and get agreements about accountability and authority upfront before the project begins or the need for enforcing requests arises.  Another approach is to have a powerful sponsor who can serve as the court of last resort if needed. Finally, there are charm and salesmanship. We induce people to follow us because they like us, respect us, are invested in the success of the project or request at hand, or because they acknowledge some expertise that we may have.

The built-in flaw here is that when push comes to shove, some other person or circumstance may be setting the other person’s priorities. We, as the unofficial leaders, may make requests that automatically go to the end of the line. Even when we use the big stick of enlisting our sponsor, she may not have sufficient authority to enforce our requirements across departmental lines.

Of course we can’t give up, so we hope that we get the right combination of these strategies in play in such a way that we get what we want. The best solution may include a combination of these tools, but the culture of the company is the real key to success here. In systems where hierarchy is subordinate to the mission, then the best idea and best execution of that idea trumps all.

Independent consultant Frank Hofmann recently told me about a benchmarking trip he made to W. L. Gore in the early 1990s. Gore is best known among consumers for its GORE-TEX brand, and among students of organizations as a large company that embraces small teams over rigid, linear hierarchy. Frank’s story about his visit tells us just how important a part culture and systems play in getting things done through others even when you can’t pull rank:

“At Gore, employees do not have titles, nor do they have ‘bosses.’ Instead, they have a system of sponsorship. Performance ratings are agreed upon by each employee’s peer group, while the employee’s sponsor strictly provides direction and support.

While I was fascinated by their unusual lattice structure, I was still having difficulty understanding how it actually worked. Late that day, I asked Shanti Mehta, one of the original group of employees who started with the company in 1958, ‘So if you don’t have titles, how exactly are your leaders chosen?’ His simple response to me was, ‘Our leaders are the people who others choose to follow.’

I’ve told this story many, many times since then—and include it in virtually every leadership development program I’ve conducted. It’s the best possible illustration of earning personal credibility each and every day, as opposed to using authority as a tool to get things accomplished. Authority, by its very nature, is limiting. True power is earned each and every day.”

Those of us who decide the structures and cultures of our organizations can sometimes forget the frustration of being a “junior” who has to nag, persuade, posture, and beg to get things done. We can take a page from organizations like Gore, and—even if we’re not ready to go all the way—can build attitudes and structures that emphasize the mission more than rank. Those of us who lead from the margins of the org chart can find like minds and form “mini Gores” within the larger organization. When your team’s faster, better results start getting attention, look for the opportunity to spread the word.

What are your thoughts? Leave them below.

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