George Carlin once said, “I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don’t have as many people who believe it”
This started me thinking about what authority and power in organizations really mean. Some people believe these words are synonymous. Well, perhaps, but I’m more inclined to believe that authority and power, while linked, are two different things.
For instance, it is possible for you to have authority without power if you are a newly appointed manager. People reporting to you will likely have little or no experience with you as a leader. As such, they may be reticent to follow your directives. Your authority only carries real power when you have earned their trust and respect and when they can see merit in the direction you want to take them. In short, the power kicks in when they give it to you.
Conversely, it is possible to have power without authority when as a well informed, competent and reliable team member, people seek out your advice and guidance. While you may not have the authority to make certain decisions on your own, you influence other team members who have come to respect your judgment and are eager to follow your lead.
Of course, as George Carlin so succinctly reminds us, the challenge is to optimize on the authority we are given by persuading others to not only believe it but also endorse and respect it. When we have accomplished that, then words like authority and power become more easily interchangeable.
So how does one go about closing the gap between authority and power? Well, here are some thoughts about that:
Some people believe that when they are awarded the mantle of authority, they must behave in a certain authoritative way. However, to me, authority has no particular personality trait. It is simply a mechanism provided to some people that facilitates decision-making and getting things done. When you represent yourself honestly, people are more likely to accept and trust you and that’s where the power lies.
Listen and learn
The decisions you make are only as good as the information on which you base them. Effective decision-making happens when the leader, and those who follow him or her, learn from each other. Your authority gives you permission to make decisions. The power behind the authority lies in the willingness of the leader to listen, learn and make informed ones.
Roll up your sleeves and join in
There are times when the leader becomes the ‘servant’. This is when everyone is clear about what must be accomplished and you, as leader, do whatever you can to support the process. You may certainly have the authority to command work to be done without participating yourself. However, sometimes rolling up the sleeves to help is just what is needed to inject enthusiasm into the mix and create positive working relationships. And that can be pretty powerful.
Recognize and Reward good work
If you want to put power behind your authority, good work must never go unrecognized. As humans, we all need to know that we, and our efforts, are appreciated. And, in the workplace, recognition is very much valued when it comes from a person in authority and is offered with sincerity. Most of us, when given such recognition, are eager to do more and to do it happily. And that’s where the power comes from.
There are, of course, other ways to close the gap between authority and power and I invite you to share your ideas here too.
In the meantime, I leave you with another thought. Some people in authority believe they can grab power by using fear as their primary motivator. It’s a poor and often painful strategy that may work for a while but does not usually stand the test of time. Even the Wizard of Oz was found out eventually.
So, What do you think?