leading without authorityWhy is leadership portrayed in terms of how managers manage people? How can you be said to LEAD people when you have the authority to tell them what to do? Business leadership is often portrayed as a decision making exercise. The CEO decides what to do and that is called leadership. 

But, another way of looking at this situation would be to conceptualize this action as a managerial or executive act, not one of leadership. An interesting point here is that the field of leadership studies has been dominated by people interested in CEO and business leadership but this is a narrow lens through which to study leadership.

A more general account of leadership sees it as an informal process, such as when you lead by example. Martin Luther King Jr. had a leadership impact on the US government when they ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional. This might be called informal leadership, but a different slant says that there is no such thing as formal leadership. When CEOs make decisions, they are wearing a managerial hat, not showing leadership. Another example of informal or pure leadership is thought leadership - champion any good idea to improve things and you can lead up, down and sideways without formal authority.

Leading Beyond Authority

  • Leadership has always been based on power, usually the power to ascend to, and maintain, a dominant position in a group. So-called formal leadership meant holding onto a position of power for a period of time.
  • But, in our knowledge driven age, where innovation is the key to success, we are engaged in a war of ideas.
  • In this realm, the power to lead is associated with the promotion of better ideas. Because no one can monopolize good ideas, leadership is now more ephemeral and episodic, an occasional act rather than a relatively long term position.
  • A leader is just ANYONE who can show us what direction to pursue on a specific topic.
  • A leader on one specialist subject will be a follower on another - regardless of position.
  • This is thought leadership.
  • Such leaders, like the leader in a golf tournament, need not have charisma or great interpersonal skills - they just need to be seen to be ahead of others in a critical respect.
  • Following such leaders is a matter of emulating them but also of striving to beat them.
  • While we call knowledgeable people authorities, they do not have the RIGHT to tell you what to do - unlike positional authorities in organizations.
  • Leadership is ultimately Know-How and it works by example. Direct influencing skills help but they are not the essence of leadership only one of its means for creating an impact on prospective followers.
  • Some leaders are more interested in getting somewhere than in influencing you.
  • Would-be leaders who explicitly influence you always have their own needs at heart.
  • A disinterested leader simply shows us the way by example or other means that we want to emulate.
  • If you have no charisma, you cannot emulate, you can only worship.

See also Leadership Defined.