Leading Without Authority, Especially When You Have Plenty


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Congratulations, you’re now in charge. Maybe you’ve been promoted to sales manager; or maybe you’re now a general manager or even CEO. With all that newly-issued authority, things are going to be much easier—no more selling for you; now you can just tell people what to do and it will get done, right? You get to set the vision, craft the strategy, and make the big decisions; everyone else’s job is to get on board and make it happen.

If so, you’re making the same mistaken assumption that Dwight Eisenhower did. After a lifetime in the military, he was used to issuing orders and being reasonably confident that they would be followed. As President, he found that the order was only the beginning, not the end. If so, you’re making the same mistake that I’ve seen in some sales organizations I work with. When I warn sales leadership that implementing a new sales methodology can be difficult, most of them confidently tell me that they will mandate its use, as if that is all that needs to be done.

Authority is like a life jacket. It will keep you afloat in a pinch, but if you need it, you’re already in trouble. And when you’re not in trouble, it just slows you down. Although safety experts recommend that you keep an actual life jacket on or nearby at all times while on the water, leaders should reach for their authority only as a last resort.

The old “Because I said so” model just does not work anymore. It might have worked when managers did the thinking and employees did the manual labor (and even then it had its limitations), but today almost everyone is a knowledge worker, and often they know more than you do about their jobs. Smart bosses surround themselves with even smarter people, but smart people don’t want to be led by you or anyone else—they want you to create the conditions where they can do their thing without being bothered.[1]

There’s also a big generational shift going on. Millenials are much more likely to question why they should do something. With jobs being scarce, they might keep their questions to themselves, but you can be sure that if the question is rattling around in their minds it can drag down their performance.

Finally, in today’s business environment things are too complex, and are moving and changing too fast for any one person to know and control everything. You simply can’t be there to exercise your authority when people need to decide and act; you have to trust them to act on their own initiative, in line with your strategies, intentions, and values.

Authority may in the short run get you the performance and effort you demand, but only persuasion gets you discretionary effort, where people do more than asked because they want to, not because they have to. Only persuasion works when you’re not around, or when you run out of sticks and carrots.

So, what does this mean to you? In short, you still need to sell, explain, and inspire. The tools that you use to persuade are more important than ever.

Listening: If you’re the boss, you need to listen more, not less. Research shows that people in authority tend to discount others’ advice[2], and 360° feedback programs show that leaders rate themselves as much better listeners than their subordinates do. Are you learning from others, or do you think you know it all? Are you making it safe for others to disagree or to bring bad news?

Asking: Are you immediately solving problems, or are you asking questions to help people solve the problems themselves? Are your questions driven by genuine curiosity, or are they directives dressed as questions? (Leading questions are bad, don’t you agree?)

Telling: Are you communicating frequently? Are you framing your communications in terms that tap into intrinsic motivation? Are you clear? Do people know where they stand with you? Are you consistent?

Acting: Do your actions match your words? Are you setting the example that you want others to follow? Do you follow up on what subordinates tell you?

[1] See the excellent article, “Leading Clever People”, by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Review, March, 2007.

[2] “Power, competitiveness, and advice taking: Why the powerful don’t listen,” Tost, Gino, Larrick, 2012.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jack Malcolm
Jack founded Falcon Performance Group in 1996 specifically to combine his complex-sale expertise and his extensive financial background to design and implement complete sales process improvement initiatives at top national and international corporations.


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