Respect My Authority!

It is better to be feared than loved.
-- Niccolo Machiavelli

Respect my auhoritah!
-- Eric Cartman



I realized something the other day: the longer people work with me, the less deference they show me. And I've decided that's a good thing.

There are many things about me that, on their surface, would inspire deference, nervousness, maybe even a little fear.  I'm a big guy and I take up a lot of space.  An offensive lineman in high school, I've kept the proportions and the personality.  I protect the people who've been placed in my care, and if you push me I'll probably push back.  I have a big title and a lot of people report to me.  I'm also passionate about finding the best solution to any problem, which can lead to, shall we say, "vigorous" discussions, with lots of whiteboard-writing, arm-waving, and BS-calling.  I ask a lot of questions and I've been known to unintentionally make people cry.  People who walk into my organization learn to hold their own pretty quickly.

So I must get a lot of respect, right?  My staff must scurry when they see me coming, whispering, "Look busy, he's here!"  My word must be law around the office, with everyone telling me how brilliant I am, how correct my judgments and awesome my guidance.

Hardly.

See, I've learned that there are two kinds of authority: that which is held and that which is given.  To put this another way, there's power and there's influence.  While you need both to lead, I've found that influence is by far the more effective and long-lasting of the two.

Power, or held authority, is positional.  It comes from titles, from organizational structures, from laws and traditions.  You gain it because of what you are.  While you probably worked hard to attain that position or stature, the power comes from outside you.  It belongs to the position, regardless of who happens to be occupying the spot at the moment.  If the org chart says that people have to do what you say, then they have to do what you say, and when you're gone, they'll have to do what the next person says, too.  That's power.

A senator is more powerful than a secretary.

Power can also come from physical attributes.  If I'm bigger than you (and I probably am), then the implicit threat of my physical presence may be enough to intimidate you into doing what I ask you to do.  Make me angry and the more explicit threat of my red face and clenching fists will make an even more powerful argument on my behalf.  I can pound the table and make people do what I say, whether they agree with it or not.  There's power in intimidation.

A wrestler is more powerful than a writer.

Then there's influence, authority which is given to you by people who choose to follow you.  You earn it by who you are, through the character and wisdom that you display every day.  People listen to you, giving you authority over their choices, because they trust you, not because they have to.  Influence is no respecter of persons or titles; it can't read an org chart.  It naturally flows to the person who gets things done, who is effective in their role, and who reaches across boundaries to help others.

A secretary can be more influential than a senator.

Influence also comes through ideas, problem-solving, and intellect.  It doesn't always go to the smartest guy in the room, but it might at least check him for references before moving on.  We're influenced by new and creative ideas, by unique insights into our world, and by seeing an intractable problem, an intellectual Gordian knot, unravel and fall to the floor as soon as someone opens his mouth. We want to be creative, effective, and unique, so we follow people who embody those qualities.

A writer can be more influential than a wrestler.

There are other ways to influence people, of course: with charisma, looks, talent, even through trickery.  In fact, I'm sure that there are enough ideas about this to fill a book.  But when it comes down to it, we follow people because we want to be like them.  Lasting influence comes through exhibiting traits that people want to see in themselves and giving them hope that they might learn them from you, or at least benefit from them by being near you.  After all, if you solve every problem that comes your way, that's fewer problems for everyone else, right?

So, which kind of authority do you want?  Power follows the traditional path, and it's the clear winner for short-term results.  If you want a pile of rocks moved and you have an army at your disposal, it's far easier to say, "Move those rocks!" than to explain why a pile of rocks is antithetical to the progress of the army and to start moving rocks yourself in the hopes that others will join you.  People who want to advance their careers seek bigger and bigger titles, not just for the status that comes with the new business cards (Gimme a "V!"  Gimme a "P!"), but because they want to have a larger impact on their organizations.  We've been trained, through practice and tradition, to expect that we need the title (and the power) in order to make a difference.

On the other hand, even good soldiers have a tendency to slack off when the sergeant's back is turned, especially if they don't understand why the rocks need to be moved in the first place.  Power's impact is swift but ephemeral: it lasts as long as the holder of the title is present and swiftly fades when he moves on.  The leader who relies too heavily on power has to be everywhere all the time or the gears grind to a halt.  The more Machiavellian leader can employ minions to spread his presence and power by proxy, but if we've learned anything from TV and the movies, it's that uneducated minions do more harm than good.  And they can't shoot straight.

Influence, on the other hand, is based upon consensus.  Rather than saying, "because I said so," influence says, "What if we tried this?"  Better yet, influence combined with leading by example says, "Here, let me show you."  Where power demands deference and must be defended, influence stems from a willingness to serve before you lead, to show before you tell.  The influential leader teaches his followers, so they can carry the message themselves even after he's gone.  Rather than following orders, they emulate what they've seen and can even improvise new solutions based on what they've learned.  Instead of creating minions, he builds disciples.

I don't mean to say that power has no value: it's a great way to get people to listen to you in the first place, and it buys you a little bit of time if you need it to get things right.  We're all more likely to let the senior executive ramble for a few minutes before he gets to his point than we are to let the junior analyst think out loud (trust me: I'm a bit of a verbal thinker myself at times).  But without influence, power fades.  If power is the spark plug, influence is the gasoline.  You need both to get the car started, but the gas will get you where you need to go.

So back to my disrespectful colleagues.  Why do I put up with them?  It's simple: I want them to be comfortable enough with me to tell me exactly what I need to hear, not what they think I want to hear.  I never want a good idea to die stillborn because someone was afraid of what The Big Guy would say, and I recognize that the best ideas can just as easily come from the secretary as from the senator.

And if people do what I say they should do, I want it to be for one of two reasons:
  1. It's the best idea in the room, or
  2. They trust me because of who I am and what they've seen me do in the past.
I never want it to be because I said so, unless they're my kids and I'm tired of arguing about bedtime.  In which case, shut up and go to bed already.  You have an early start tomorrow.

You can respect my authority all you want, but it should be because you gave it to me and you know exactly how much it's worth.
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