Leadership vs Authority

March 7, 2014

noun: authority; noun: auth.; plural noun: authorities
The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. Given to or invested in a person by an organization, or group.
“He had absolute authority over his subordinates”

verb: leadership;
Leadership is the act of creating environments that influence others to achieve group goals. Leadership is given willingly to the person who earns it.
“People trusted her leadership and followed her”

These are the kinds of definitions we find on the internet for these words.
Recently, I have found myself in discussion regarding the differences of the intended meanings and how that relates to our work in leadership training in general.

Many years ago in a Dale Carnegie class one person raised the question “How do I get leadership?” instantly another person responded “You take it”. That opened a robust conversation on how leaders seem to step into the roll when (in an organic way) the opportunity presents itself.

Authority on the other hand is “bestowed” upon a person due to rank, or position. Authority is more like “reigning” over people, with a forced sense of “do it or else” tone. In civil society authority has its place to maintain the peace, and enforce laws. I don’t believe relying on authority serves the business community well, because it carries with it a tone of tyrannical arrogance.

Even in the military environment leadership is more respected than the wielding of authority. A USAF Captain at Joint Base MDL in New Jersey said this to me:
“When I see an individual who has lost respect from their unit, I tell my young rising officers ‘you are not a leader’. They respond ‘sure I am Sir, I have rank’. Then I tell them that were it not for the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not a single person in your team would follow you. You are a leader when they follow you because they want to.”
Curious, it seems that even when authority is granted, to be most effective an individual requires the kind of trust and respect which is earned by a true leader.
As we say in the Leadership Training for Managers program “People will support a world they help create”. Authority is exclusive, Leadership is inclusive.

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