What is Power and Authority really?

What is Power and Authority really?

When I first started working in corporate America years ago, mainly larger Fortune companies, there was what seemed to be an insatiable thirst for power and authority. The thought was that the bigger your title, office, and team, the greater power and authority you had.

Back then, people did what I wanted them to do because I had the title and authority to demand it. they could comply or not but if not, then they were let go. This was a very top-down authoritarian time and, on the surface, seemed to make sense to me. it was clean, straightforward, and easy to execute.

The dictionary definition of authority is the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.

That was the way things worked. In many companies, this is the way things still work.

However, when I went out on my own and started consulting for companies, mainly in the small to mid-market space. I was an outsider with no title, no power, and no authority. Only a charter to help ownership achieve its goals.

How was I going to do this with no title, no power, no authority, heck, not even an office or business card?

For my first many engagements, I was given power and authority by ownership. Ownership directed the staff to work with me and allow me to do what I needed to do, to achieve the company’s objectives.

This worked for some people I worked with, but I could tell the vast majority were just “playing along” and not truly “in my boat”  if you know what I mean. They’d go through the motions, appearing to help, just enough so I wouldn’t go to ownership and tell them they were a problem.

I always had trouble leading people under these conditions. It just didn’t seem “right” to me and as a result, many of my initiatives were slowed or more difficult than they needed to be. There had to be a better answer, and I was in search of it.

As a result, I spent some time learning about servant leadership. I was familiar with the meaning from church, my scripture readings and Jesus as the ultimate servant leader, but how did it apply to the business world? I thought that if I could figure that out, I’d have the power and authority to accomplish anything I wanted to for a client. So, I studied this concept, and this is how I applied it.

I learned that instead of coming in with all the answers, promoting my accomplishments, how smart and capable I was – instead I needed to put people first. Humility.

Instead of valuing people for what they could give to the company, I needed to value the people for who they are.

I had to learn how to stop giving directions and start asking more questions. I needed to listen.

I learned that I truly had to care about others, their hopes, and dreams, their goals, and their challenges in life. I had to be present with them in all of that.

Finally, I had to trust them. Trust that if I knew them, involved them, coached them, and served them, they’d follow me and as a result, we’d accomplish our goals together.

This was a 180 from what I learned in management school and large corporate America. However, as big of a change as this was for me, it was oh-so-very natural. It finally “seemed” right. I think because it is “right”. I think it is the way we’re supposed to be with one another.

To have Power, I needed to give Power.

To have Authority, I needed to give Authority.

In many ways, this is the opposite of what we’re taught in western culture. We’re taught that if we want power we have to go out and take it from someone else. We’re taught that if we want authority, we need to demand it and punish them for noncompliance.

But I don’t think that it works all that well. I think it is a major cause of all the tribalism and division we’re seeing in our culture today. But that’s for a different article.

The question that needs to be answered is… what is power and authority really and does servant leadership work?

In my case, the answer is an emphatic YES!

I found that approaching relationships this way, made me better. We were able to achieve more goals in a shorter time AND best of all, I have relationships with more people than ever. Even after years of not working together, the bonds of trust we built have lasted and we still seek out opportunities to help one another with the challenges each of us faces.

I’m not sure if this article is helpful or not, but it has been on my mind for a while. I’ve been quietly watching as a society and the people that make up that society, fight for more and more power and authority and end up tearing each other down instead of building each other up and it makes me sad.

If we could all just be a bit humbler, care a little more about the people we interact with, ask more questions and listen, and perhaps give a little more trust than we’re used to giving – We might all be a little better for it.

Does it make you vulnerable? Yes.

Will some people take advantage of you? Absolutely.

Will you be wronged and treated unfairly? Sometimes.

But does all that risk avoidance keep you from being a better leader? I think yes.