Do you rely on authority to lead?

June 23, 2014 by Joshua
in Leadership

Do you rely on authority to lead?

The more you rely on authority to lead the more authoritarian you are.

Think of authoritarian leaders in the past. Do you want to follow in their footsteps?

Relying on authority means using tools of authority, like what comes with your position in the organization, group, or family. Things like hiring, firing, promotions, bonuses, performance-based pay, giving or removing responsibility, perks, and so on. I see many of these things as essential tools to manage people already committed to the cause, but not to lead, inspire, or motivate.

If people are already committed or agree with you, these tools aren’t that necessary. They can even undermine internal support. Like if someone cares about what they do but have slowed production for some reason and you offer them a bonus to try to motivate them, you risk implying you didn’t value their existing motivations. They might start to lose value in their motivations too. Then they end up just working for the external reason, which will never motivate as well as internal motivations.

If people disagree with you, using tools of authority risks leading them to dig in and disagree with you more, breeding resentment in the process, destroying productivity and morale, and possibly motivating them to leave the team. I would authoritarian leadership like that leads and motivates, but likely in the opposite direction as intended.

I would bet that many historically effective leaders that had plenty of authority at their disposal were effective for not using it. Military leaders like Napoleon or George Patton come to mind. I would suspect that the more leaders relied on authority over other tools like understanding and drawing on their followers’ existing motivations, the less they succeeded. You can think of well-known historical figures who relied more on tools of authority.

It’s probably obvious, but I recommend using authority as last resort for leadership for its risk in undermining respect for you and provoking resistance. As an alternative I prefer working with people’s existing motivations.

I start with the tools in “How to make someone feel understood: the Confirmation Cycle.”

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