Authority comes from above–Leadership is granted from below

thomas

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.