Being and Being Under Authority

Authority vs. Individualism

Electricity is a good thing until it electrocutes someone. Authority is like that – a good thing until it’s not.

Not to be political, but the example is too obvious to overlook: America is seeing its founding strengths of freedom and independence morph into an extremist individualism that is hindering our ability to work together and make progress. We’re increasingly unable to trust and unwilling to submit to authorities.

What does that say to us about authority within our organizations? We might like to think our employees’ separate their attitudes about government authority from organizational authority. Maybe. But I suggest the default posture is that authority is authority whether in the home, work, government, or elsewhere. If you want to be seen in a different light, it’s up to you turn on the lamp.

Disagreement with Authorities

When everyone is in agreement, there’s no need for authority. If the family is going out to a movie and we all want to see the same show, no one has to play the authority trump card. But when everyone wants to see something different, someone has to make the decision or at least decide how the decision will get made. Obedience only matters when you disagree with the one you’re choosing to obey. We don’t like words like “obey” and “submit” in our “nobody can tell me what to do” culture.

So how do we establish our authority when there’s a predisposition toward extreme individualism?

Authority by Leadership

At enLumen, we believe that leadership is fundamentally other-centric. The success of a leader is measured by the success of their followers. That kind of leadership is the foundation for authority that people will willingly follow – even when they disagree. Sure, you might get away with playing a muscle card and threatening people into obedience. That sometimes works for a while, but in the long term it leads to high turn-over, low commitment, and therefore low productivity.

Start with these principles to build leadership-based authority:

  • Personal Commitment. Commit yourself to NEVER using your authority in any way that is not in the best interest of those you lead. If you see authority as a tool to serve your personal interests, you lose. Remind yourself of this commitment daily.
  • Build Trust. The response to any decision is built on what has gone before. Explain the “why” behind your decisions. Give them reasons to give you the benefit of any doubt. Gain trust by giving trust.
  • Be the Example. How do your followers see you responding to authority (organizational, governmental, or otherwise)? Why would you expect them to not follow your example in responding to your authority?
  • Play the Authority Card as a Last Resort. In most situations, there are better ways to move your team toward your shared goals than making declarations because you can. Listen to their concerns, gather their ideas, let them be part of creating solutions. Then you’ll have a high enough balance in your credibility account to withstand the withdrawal of an unpopular decision. © 2022 enLumen Leadership Services

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