Lead With, Beyond, and Without Authority

The Nature of Authority

All of this is beginning to help us explain why we see so little leadership from people in authority. So how would you disappoint people at a rate they can stand? And that becomes a very practical and in fact common question in the practice of leadership.

Because if people expect you, particularly if you’re trying to lead from an authority position,
if people expect you to know, but you’re saying we don’t know, and in fact, you’re part of the problem.

My surgical handiwork can only solve part of the problem in the operating room by giving you new vessels to your heart, but the other part of the problem remains in you. So let’s step back then and focus on trying to understand the nature of authority and put the term leadership even–let’s put it on the shelf for right now.

Because leadership almost always gets practiced in some social matrix, in some social setting in which there are authority relationships. It’s like the turbulence and the gravity that you have to take into account if you’re going to fly.

Leadership is usually practiced in some context. Even if you’re leading without any authority, you still need to understand that you’re leading into a social system in which there are authority structures and authority relationships.

So let’s put leadership aside and just try to understand the nature of authority.

Roots of Authority

The first thing to notice here is that trusting others to provide us with services is basic to social living. This inclination to look to elders for solutions to the fundamental challenges we face from birth is part of our design.

We are born to depend on others and to trust them with our welfare in a unconscious natural covenant or social contract in which we give others power over our bodies and daily decisions with the expectation that they will provide for us with care, integrity, and competence. This natural appropriate dependency on others is I think the evolutionary basis for authority.

The second key observation is that authority is relational. It’s a property of social living. In other words, you cannot have authority by yourself. You can’t authorize yourself. You can permit yourself. You can have self-confidence and expertise. You can convey trustworthiness and wisdom and even a calm readiness to receive authority, but you only have authority when others give you authority.

That’s what it means to be authorized. Authority relationships are deeply rooted. We have an innate predisposition to authorize others. This becomes less automatic as we grow up and become more conscious and deliberate about whom to trust.

We think about and select whom to entrust with our welfare. We choose whom to ask for help, whom to nominate to be captain of the team, whom to choose to be head of the group or club or who should be president of our school class.

At the end of our childhood, we might choose with whom to study further, whom to work for. In many countries, we will vote in elections and authorize public officials, even if we are taught in our youth to be highly discriminating or skeptical or even cynical about whom to trust.

I think there is nevertheless a deep hope in human beings that trustworthy people can be found or will emerge worthy of our authorization. We turn to them. We hire them. And we elect them in the hope they will do the job we’ve asked them to do.

The Services of Authority

In defining authority, we’ve suggested that it takes the form of a basic social contract. When we entrust people with power over decisions and resources, we expect them to perform services. We authorize people for a reason. And generally, the more significant the services, the more significant the power and trust.

Ultimately, in many countries, we give our senior officials in government the power to decide even matters of life and death in war because we expect them to protect our way of life. As we’ve suggested, this belief has deep evolutionary roots. Our capacity to form authority relationships lies at the base of our social structures from the family to the nation.

Whether we are speaking of the president of a country or company, a hospital administrator, or the head of an advocacy organization, a middle manager, a line supervisor, or a parent, the services of an authority figure have fundamental commonalities. We generally authorize people to provide in varying degrees three essential services–
direction, protection, and order.

Just as elders in a hunter and gatherer society are expected to set the direction for the group when they travel for food, people in authority in modern life are expected to know where we are going. They provide direction, setting our goals and strategies for the way

Just as elders are dependent upon to coordinate group protection, people in authority today are expected to make sure that we can beat the competition, survive the external attack, keep our defensive technology up to speed, and make valuable alliances. Elders in a hunter and gatherer society also maintain order.

They provide orientation and structure to the way camp is laid out, restore peace when a fight erupts, and maintain cultural norms. People in authority today are also expected to ensure order in our lives and work by maintaining the structures, processes, and reporting relationships that orient us in our roles, by resolving our conflicts and by reinforcing the cultural norms that inform and guide us.

So every authority relationship will, to some degree provide direction, protection, and order.

Authority And Leadership

Perhaps, the most common source of confusion about leadership is our tendency to equate leadership with authority. We equate leadership with high positions of power. With all the tools that come with authority and with the ability to gain those tools.

You can see this in our everyday language and in most television programs and newspaper articles. We refer to the leaders of the company, the Congress, the country, the project, the school, or the city. When we are really referring to people in top positions of authority. Journalists and scholars then study and write about presidents and CEOs to understand how they wielded power and influence.

And the skills and talents that enable them to rise to those positions, as if they were writing about leadership and not just authority. They might be, but not necessarily. So when we think about leadership here, it’s natural to assume that we are referring to people in positions of authority.

But we are not making that assumption here because we think that assumption has big costs. Thinking of leadership and authority as if they were the same thing clouds our thinking and blurs key aspects of both. It gives us a restricted idea of what leadership is, who can exercise it, and the nature practices of authority itself.

Forms of Authority

From the entry level job of distributing the mail throughout an office building to being the CEO of a company, every job description says, we entrust you with power to get a job done. Every job description sets out a formal authorization. It specifies in a formal, explicit way the powers of the job, and the specific services you are trusted to provide with integrity and competence.

If it’s the person delivering the mail, they are given power, power over people’s mail and resources like a motorized cart. They are trusted to do their job. The trust is based on shared values and competence. And they are expected to serve, to deliver the mail accurately and on time. If they start to open people’s mail or take it or lose it, violating the trust they’ve been given, they lose their authority, their job.

Moreover, nearly every job description gives you a reporting relationship, someone senior to you who is authorized by the organization to check and to guide your work. They play a key role evaluating how well you are doing and if you should get reauthorized to stay in your job or get promoted to another.

Supervisory authority relationships go all the way to the top of organizations. Because CEOs usually report to boards of directors who check their work too for shared values and competence. And boards in turn are formally authorized by governments and their legal systems that supervise, sometimes too tightly, sometimes too loosely, the company’s values and competence.

It comes full circle because governments and their legal systems are authorized by constitutions, legislative mandates, rules, traditions, and most importantly, citizens who entrust government officials with power to perform a wide array of services, including the regulation and oversight of commerce.

In other words, an organization is a system of formal authorizations from top-to-bottom and from side-to-side living in a larger society of authorizations.

Informal Authority

We authorize people to do things for us every day. And we often formalize these understandings as an explicit contract for services. We do this, not only with job descriptions, but also when we review paperwork before leaving our car with a mechanic, sign forms when we see a doctor, or vote and elect a candidate into office in a democracy.

But the people we formally authorize usually have another form of authority as well. We call it informal authority in this course. When people have informal authority in our lives, we look to them with broader admiration and respect beyond the specific trust we place in them to get a job done.

And that gives them more power. They can speak to a broader set of issues and people will listen. Sometimes the informal authority we bestow takes extraordinary proportions when people gain charismatic and moral authority in our eyes.

Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were wonderful examples. Both men had tiny organizations for which they had a little bit of formal authority, but nearly all of their power came from the informal authority millions of people over time gave them.

They each decided not to exchange it for greater formal authority. And they declined taking high political or organizational office. Instead they saw advantages to leading without formal authority.

In our own everyday lives, many of our authorizations remain entirely informal. We look to people to represent a point of view, championed a cause, give us advice, or even bless us religiously, often without ever formalizing the arrangement.

So having informal authority alone can be very powerful. On the other hand, if you are an authority figure, it can be difficult to accomplish what you set out to do without also having informal authority.

Most people with formal authority rely on having some measure of informal authority. They have the formal authority made explicit in their job description and the powers that come with it, but they also depend on the informal authority they get from their colleagues, senior lateral, and junior, who trust, respect, admire, or even just like them.

Changes to Authority Over Time

When we work in an organization, we all know that the informal authority we earn with our boss counts a lot. But your bosses view of you is also shaped by what they hear from your subordinates and from your lateral colleagues.

If your boss hears that you’ve gained the respect and admiration of subordinates and colleagues that counts in their evaluation of your capacity. People especially underestimate the power of subordinates, but they do so at their peril.

The informal authority that subordinates give you is enormously valuable. Their respect, trust, and admiration is often crucial to any manager. Senior military officers know, for example, that they need the respect and trust of their troops to get a tough job well done.

The formal authority that comes with their rank really isn’t enough. The same is true with lateral colleagues, whose collaboration is so often needed. So while formal authority brings with it the considerable and fairly consistent powers of an office, enduring success in this office usually turns on a person’s informal authority.

In fact, informal authority also comes with a subtle, yet quite substantial power. The power to extend one’s reach beyond the limits of the job description. Often, the real go-to person in an organization, the person you seek if you really want to get something done, has a lot more power than her title would suggest because she’s gained so much trust and respect.

And over time, as people gain more and more informal authority, that trust and respect can turn into greater formal authority as they get promoted to take on more assignments and responsibilities.

Even though the powers and influence that come with formal and informal authority relationships may be very different, in both cases, the relationship itself has the same format. Party A entrusts Party B with power in exchange for services.

Now, let’s look at the practice of managing your formal and informal authority in a dynamic sense. Your formal authority remains constant for long periods of time, changing in quantum jumps occasionally at discrete moments.

At hiring, at promotion, or when you leave the job. But because your success in meeting expectations tends to fluctuate week by week, your informal authority is in constant flux. So in practice, you need to track how your informal authority goes up and down over time and how your credibility, respect, approval, and admiration change in people’s eyes.

Advantages of Leading Beyond and Without Authority

The second big advantage to distinguishing leadership from authority is that it enables us to celebrate, learn from, and affirm the vital practice of leadership that takes place every day by people going beyond the boundaries of their authority, their job description, and by people leading without any authority at all.

The idea that one could lead without authority is also quite counterintuitive. Of course, there are disadvantages to leading beyond your authority when nobody has asked you to go beyond your job description or to leading without authority when you are nobody’s go-to person.

But not only is it possible to lead beyond and without authority, often there are advantages to leading in this way from below or outside, advantages we only recognize once we have these new categories and can see and analyze differences between leading with, beyond, and without authority.

One reason this is so important is that many people spend years of their lives waiting to get to an authority position, thinking that when they get to that position they can finally start to lead.

The word leader is so bonded to the word authority for them that they waste years of leadership opportunity waiting first for that promotion or election to a senior authority position. They don’t realize that many people find ways to lead laterally and upwards beyond their authority and even into communities where they have no authority whatsoever.

Indeed, one of the major sources of success and adaptability of American society is a culture that encourages people to lead without waiting. Richard Neustadt, who wrote the classic Presidential Power and founded Harvard’s Kennedy School. In The Power to Persuade, Richard Haass analyzes leadership beyond one’s authority by analyzing leadership in all four compass headings–upward north with your superiors, laterally east and west across silos and into other organizations, as well as south inside the organization where you do have clear authority.

One of the most recognizable examples of this is the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership was largely directed outside his sphere of authority upward into the White House and wider political system and laterally across a wide cross section of American communities.

The communities whose values he wanted most to influence were those communities with whom he had neither formal nor moral authority, those who disliked him sharply disagreed with him, or cared little for what he stood for.

King succeeded in calling those of us who felt that way to examine and narrow the gap between the values we said we stood for, freedom and equality, and the way we lived. And that gave political authorities latitude to take action and narrow the gap too.

So when we begin to distinguish leadership from authority, we can begin to examine how somebody can provide leadership beyond their authority or without any authority. We can honor and capture the lessons of heroic people, many of them unsung heroes who lead every day just because they care.


Now it’s time to examine the authority relationships present in your leadership case. Answer the following questions in comment box:

  1. What was your job?
  2. What formal authority did you have?
  3. What informal authority (trust, respect, credibility) did you have?

Leave a Comment