Leadership vs Authority—Why Such Confusion?

It is always interesting for me to hear how everyone talks about the authority role as the “leader”; referring to the  CEO as the “leader” of the company, or the Governor as the “leader” of the state. In essence, we really don’t know if that person is doing any kind of leadership at all. What he or she has is power—the power of an assigned role within the organization: that is authority. Leadership is something different, something more, I would say. Leadership is mobilizing people to change, to ask the tough questions and seek out the answers that are not easily available.

There are certainly CEO’s, governors, presidents, directors, who are also great leaders, but there are many who are not. And, these people are exercising leadership all of time. The best formal authorities know when leadership is necessary. They can recognize when their organization is facing an adaptive challenge—a tough problem that requires leadership—and then they have the skills and strategies to get the group through it.

I like to use the metaphor of a runner to better understand leaders.  Someone is a runner who runs frequently for fitness and health benefits, maybe completes a few marathons, and consistently runs. However, that runner is not running 24/7. She runs certain times and with a purpose: to get a workout in, to compete in a race. Leaders are like runner. They are not leading all the time, but they recognize when the situation needs leadership and they lead with a purpose.

At LLI, we teach our clients to recognize the difference between leadership and authority in order to be better at both. How well do you understand your role of authority? How capable are you at leading people when leadership is necessary? The distinction between leadership and authority is a critical one, especially in times of conflict, turbulence, and tension. And while a role of authority does not guarantee a person will exercise leadership, those roles certainly provide the opportunity to do so. Both leadership and authority are critical components to organizations—develop and understand both to be the most effective.


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