Monday, May 9, 2011

Authority is Assumed, Not Assigned

Executive Summary:
Throughout our careers, we find that either we are placed in positions where we have some responsibility, but our authority is not clear, or we see a problem and wish that someone with some authority to fix it would do so.  In both situations, the solution is not to point and wonder, but to stand up and take charge. 

The Rest of the Story:
To make sense of this discussion, I must clarify what kind of authority I mean.  I recognize two types of authority: the authority of policy, and the authority of leadership.  Authority of policy is the type that gives you permission to sign for a certain level of expense, or to hire or terminate personnel.  Authority of leadership is that which enables you to direct the activities of a group of people.  The latter is the authority I would like to discuss.

A few years ago a colleague (a good friend of mine) and I were sitting in the business break room discussing our mutual challenge of leading teams made up of personalities with greater rank and authority than we ourselves possessed within the company.  The question was, how do we go about directing and giving assignments to others with greater authority than ourselves, and more to the point, how do we correct them if their assignments are not getting done?  If you are a full-time change agent, then perhaps this scenario is familiar to you as well. 

It is an uncomfortable position to find oneself in, but it happens.  During our discussion, the answer became clear.  We must assume authority and proceed as if we have been granted it.

Sound obvious?  Not really.  In such a situation the obvious answer is that the people on our team have greater authority than we do because that is how we operate when we are outside of the team.  It’s not obvious that we can simply change our behavior when performing the leadership role for the team, but that is precisely what we must do.

If we look at it logically, we have either volunteered to lead the team, or we have been assigned leadership of the team.  In either case, our teammates and our sponsors have an expectation that we be the leader.  If that means that we are directing the activities of individuals with higher salaries than our own, then so be it.

The real phenomenon of authority is not purely logical, however.  Leadership is not a title, but a behavior and a skill set.  Similarly, authority is not a badge and a title, it is a privilege granted, not by your boss, but by your team.

What’s more, it often has little to do with age, rank, education, or prestige.  It is a matter of the leader demonstrating that he or she has the vision to guide the effort and the commitment and wherewithal to enable success.

This suggestion of assuming leadership is not a theory of mine, but a principle that has served me very well.  For most of the big projects in my career I lead teams of people with more experience, often more leadership expertise, and more authority of policy than I. 

Our efforts were successful, and the team performed well, and I rarely had difficulty being the leader (though I confess to several leadership lessons learned).  That is, when I assumed authority and leadership.  Also, it’s not necessarily because my leadership skills are better than others’ on the team.

I’ll give you a short example, not to boast, but to make a point.  I volunteered to lead an effort to plan a strategy for global deployment of Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) within the corporation for which I worked.  The previous leader had failed to gain much traction, and had recently been removed from the role.

I was the youngest member of the team, but I had more experience with DFSS deployment than most of the others and I believed that I saw a way to succeed.  It gave me the confidence to volunteer, and an endorsement from a pair of the team members helped make it happen.

Long story, short, we completed the strategy in greater detail than expected, and completed it on schedule in spite of the 6-months of lost time under previous leadership.  We did this not because I took the lead, but because someone to the lead.

The team was made up of functional directors and vice presidents, any of whom would have had the authority to see me reprimanded or terminated.  Of course none of them would, but they had that level of policy authority over my own rank and file.  It was precisely because the team was made up of these individuals that we were able to get so much done, so well, and so quickly.

You see, leaders already know how to get a thing done, that’s how they became leaders in the first place.  All I had to do was establish a vision of what was needed and coordinate the assignments and activities.  Yes, in a few cases, I had to call someone and ask why assignments weren’t complete.

By this time in my career, I had long since learned that though I was the leader of the team, I couldn’t just act like some vice president’s superior and reprimand him when he was late on an assignment.  I could however, ask why, ask how I could help, offer to see if one of the other team members could lend a hand, and I could ask for some proactive communication in the future when one of our assignments was going to slip because of an urgent need elsewhere; basic project manager stuff.

You see, you probably already know how to handle these situations if the personnel don’t outrank you.  What we need to recognize is that the same rules apply when our teammates do outrank us.

The principle of assuming authority doesn’t just belong to scenarios where we are leading teams of high-ranking members.  It applies to problems that no one seems willing or able to address, and it applies to problems people want to address, but don’t know how.

When these situations come up, don’t point fingers and talk about who should solve it.  Step up and volunteer to solve it, or ask the process owner if he or she would accept your help or expertise.  You would be surprised to see how quickly people will jump to your side and ask what you need or start to explain how they can or cannot help you.

Here is an example.  A very close friend of mine just returned from an international conference of experts across the commercial aircraft industry assembled to re-write some of the industry’s regulations.  She also experienced the very phenomenon I’m discussing.

During the meeting, the chairperson asked how the on-line collaboration system they enabled was working.  For the most part, he received polite nods.  My friend spoke up and voiced her concern that not enough activity was taking place and that based on the results so far, there was no way that the committee would complete it’s recommendations on time.

She suggested, that more face-to-face meetings with focused agendas were necessary.  She went on to suggest time frames and locations that would make it easy for members to meet and provide time between meetings to complete assignments.  Her suggestion was met with vehement agreement instead of polite nods.

Within a few minutes, the next meeting date and location was established, team leaders for the different regulations had volunteered or otherwise agreed to publish focused agendas, and the plan was no longer a suggestion, but a commitment.  After the meeting, members from other continents came up to my friend and politely apologized that they would not be able to make so many trips, but worked out plans to be able to participate via phone or Internet link.

You see, my friend was suddenly the leader of this agenda to meet on these topics and get things done.  Now here is the clincher:  she is the youngest member of this international committee and a very new member as well.  She was granted leadership, not because of age, tenure, expertise, or even because she asked, but because she provided a vision and the apparent wherewithal to see it through.

No doubt, if you look through your own career memoirs you will see similar examples in your own experience.  If so, then you should recognize that my assertion is credible, that authority is a privilege granted by the team, not assigned by a boss, and that the best way to get it is to assume it.

Frequently, we find ourselves wishing someone would take the lead, or wishing that the one in the lead would take charge.  Sometimes we find ourselves needing to lead others with greater experience or responsibility than we ourselves possess.  If no one is solving the problem, step up and assume authority.  If your leader isn’t taking charge, give him or her a link to this post.  If you are in charge, but feel apprehensive about how much authority you may or may not have, assume the authority you need.

I know it sounds obvious when I put it into simple words like this, but think about it.  If it were obvious, then we wouldn’t have anything to discuss and someone would have already solved those problems.  It’s not obvious, and it’s not always comfortable, but it is realistic and it does work.  Try it.

Stay wise, friends.

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