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Managers, you need to make friends with authority

The ways we perceive powerful figures in our lives can actually shape our own leadership style. Here are some fresh ways to think about your relationship to authority.

Some leaders—maybe you?—have a kind of love-hate relationship with authority. Many people are uncomfortable with the male-dominated versions of authority that can look, well, authoritarian. This can create a kind of allergy to authority that becomes a problem when we step into leadership roles ourselves.

These leaders are more likely to enter a room of people from their company and tell them, “Pretend I’m not here—I just want to take part in the conversation like one of you.”  They then participate in the conversation as though they were among peers—a lovely mindset for the leader to have, but often confusing for those in the conversation.

You can’t take off your job title

Leadership, however, is often about exercising some kind of authority. It’s about having eyes on you, about having more power to shape a direction, about wandering off for a coffee and finding the rest of the team has joined you. Leaders—especially those uneasy about authority in the first place—think they can take off their job titles. And no matter how much data they get to the contrary, they keep trying to convince others that their opinions and perspectives are no more relevant than any other person’s.

This is a lovely way to think, and it’s hard to discourage leaders who approach the world in this way. It’s just that the shadow side of this approach is dangerous. Leaders who have leadership job titles but not leadership attitudes towards their authority are often confusing. Their uncertainty about their own authority is contagious, and uncertain followers aren’t usually at their best.

Find out your relationship to authority

So, if this is you, what do you do? The first thing is to develop some nuance about your own relationship to authority. Where do your stories and assumptions come from in this regard? Do you think of your first boss of yours, the one who micromanaged everyone? Or an experience when you were young and a coach treated you badly? Generally, we see through the lens of our own experience, and a negative experience with authority can blur our thinking for decades.

Find the best uses of power

This blurry thinking means that it’s harder to see the gentle and helpful use of authority. Because their eyes are focused on the abuses of power, these leaders don’t learn about best ways to use authority. In order to undo this bias, leaders have to intentionally seek out examples of thoughtful uses of power. They have to constantly recognise that they are, in fact, different from others in the organisation, that their words have more power, and that they sometimes have to change their behaviour to accommodate the ways others see them. And they have to confront in themselves whatever it is that makes them afraid of stepping gracefully into their power.

Check out your own relationship to authority and wonder about it. See whether you can step into a new space, and imagine the power that new space might hold—for you and for those who want to follow you.

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Jennifer Garvey Berger

Jennifer Garvey Berger

Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger is a Facilitator for The Leadership Circle. A global leader in the applied adult development field, Jennifer teaches and speaks about leadership at places like Lucasfilm, the Commonwealth Club, and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University. She uses theory and practice knowledge to help individuals and teams transform themselves and their organisations, and she writes about these ideas (her new book is ‘Changing on the job: Developing leaders for a complex world’).

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