Authority comes from above–Leadership is granted from below


Seven-thirty every morning, I sit on the couch and watch Thomas the Tank Engine. I’m not a big fan, but as far as son #3 is concerned–well, TRAINS! The lesson a few mornings ago was that James didn’t like to be told what to do by a lowly freight car. James, after all, is an ENGINE. And, of course, James ended up in trouble because he didn’t listen. He then had to go back to the freight car for help in solving the problem.

As my mind wandered from the happy singing on TV, I got to thinking– that happens way too often. I’ve seen it countless times. A newly promoted manager with something to prove, that feels like they can’t afford to listen to their followers because that would threaten their authority. After all, why did they get promoted if they don’t have all the answers? Or, they feel the need to flex their authority-muscles to show everyone they’re in charge.

The problem is authority and leadership are two vastly different things.

An organization can give you authority to decide things. Followers have to give you permission to lead them. Sure, you can “force” people to do what you say. You can assign someone to sweep the floors or file the backlog of papers. But unless they buy in or have some other reason to try and please you, they will do the bare minimum necessary to keep their job. And if they’re only trying to please you to make a good impression? Eventually someone else will come along that they want to impress more. They will have no loyalty toward you or your team.

We usually gain authority in an organization for a variety of reasons: maybe we hold the right degree or accreditation, or maybe we were just really good at our previous job. Unfortunately, the traits that got us the promotion are rarely the traits that will make us great leaders. And while we can most certainly have leadership without authority, authority without leadership leads to very bad things.

Which brings me to my favorite quote on leadership from One Bullet Away, written by Nathaniel Fick:

” Strong combat leadership is never by committee. Platoon commanders must command, and command in battle isn’t based on consensus. It’s based on consent. Any leader wields only as much authority and influence as is conferred by the consent of those he leads. The Marines allowed me to be their commander, and they could revoke their permission at any time.”

The Marine Corps gave Lt Fick the authority to command. But, he realized that unless he earned the respect, trust and loyalty of the men in his platoon, he would never actually be leading. If anyone is interested in the story, I highly recommend watching Generation Kill.  You can read the article it was originally based on  archived here.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the military (it’s just harder to find news articles about good or bad middle managers).

So how do we develop the traits that make us successful leaders? I think we need to switch our focus. I don’t think it was a coincidence that James was the engine that had trouble listening to the freight car. After all, he’s the one “that’s vain, but lots of fun“.

Getting promoted likely involved honing our own skills. Now we need to switch our focus so that we’re not just concerned with how well we’re doing, but rather how well the people in our team are doing. We have to value them as people and employees. We have to listen to them.

If James had been a little less focused on himself and actually believed that the freight car had a valuable opinion, then the show would have been disappointingly short for my toddler, but maybe a little less mind numbing for me.

Then again, I guess it’s not just about me.

The Art of Leadership



Between the ages of 12 and 18, much of my free time was spent participating in the Air Cadets program.  Some kids go to camp, some work part-time and I went to Cadets.  I met great friends, learned new skills, and received some solid leadership training.  I still recall the definition they taught us:

“Leadership is the art of influencing human behaviour in order to accomplish a mission in the manner desired by the leader.”

~Canadian Forces definition of leadership, circa 1990

While there was dubious value in memorizing this definition there are some parts of it that I like. I agree, leadership is very much an art. There is no formula for dealing with people, no recipe for getting them to do what you want.  And make no mistake,  the most important part of that definition is that leadership is all about influencing people’s behaviour.  But how do we do that? Well, that’s the million dollar question, and one I hope we’ll be exploring together here.

 I have one beef  with this definition: it seems to place more emphasis on the second half of the definition, accomplishing a mission in the manner desired by a leader than on the first part. Which makes sense, to a certain extent, if you remember that the definition came from the Canadian military. Mission, always the Mission, was a mantra that was repeated over and over again. But that’s a scary definition and implies that the ends justify the means. It also implies that the leader knows the manner in which they want the mission accomplished but that’s not always the case.  Even in the military. I would argue that part of being an effective leader is involving your team in the solution process. 

In 2005, the Canadian Forces published new leadership manuals, with the following change to the definition of leadership:

CF leadership may be formally defined as directing, motivating, and enabling others to accomplish the mission professionally and ethically, while developing or improving capabilities that contribute to mission success. Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Doctrine


Not as easy to memorize, but definitely puts the emphasis on the people side of things. Also, I love the subtle shift to enabling others to accomplish the mission.  The leader is now responsible for contributing to mission success, but doesn’t have to operate in a vacuum any more.

And to me, that’s what leadership is about. You can’t be a leader if you’re the only one involved. Leadership is about bringing people together for a purpose. Whether it’s to attack a trench, ship boxes, serve a client or change the world. But the challenge is not coming up with something to do, there are lots of great ideas out there. The hard part is getting the team to work together, past the individual issues, past the interpersonal issues, past the assumptions and the egos so that the team can do what individuals working by themselves can’t.

Which brings me to my definition of leadership:

Leadership is the courage to bring people together and the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things.

So why bother starting with a definition? Because I think it’s easy to get lost and wander around this rather fluffy subject and forget what we’re actually trying to do. In order to figure out how to be an effective leader, or better yet, a great leader, I think we need to be sure we’re talking about the same thing. My definition isn’t restricted to people in official, I’m-in-charge positions.  It can apply to a manager trying to get their team to ship a product on time or it can apply to parents trying to make their family unit a place where everyone can thrive. It can apply to teachers, engaging their students and it can apply to someone who wants to start fundraising for a cause that they’re passionate about.

It’s not about strategy. It’s not about winning.

For me, it’s about helping to bring the best out in people.

So what’s your definition of leadership?