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A Few Thoughts on Leading without Authority

February 6, 2013

HeifetzRon Heifetz, in his Leadership Without Easy Answers, says, “The scarcity of leadership from people in authority, however, makes it all the more critical to the adaptive successes of a polity that leadership be exercised by people without authority” (183).

In other words, even though leaders should expect good leadership from those above them, they should perhaps not wait for it such that its absence affects their own leadership adversely.

I’m fortunate to work for a boss who leads well. But any person in a position of middle management should be prepared to lead effectively regardless of what leadership they see coming from “people in authority.”

And effective leadership requires proactivity. Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People talks about being proactive as taking “the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen” (71).

I wonder whether we might at times fear taking on responsibility beyond what is in our job description, or beyond what our supervisors have explicitly asked of us. We may worry that we’ll do the wrong thing, or try to do the right thing but in the wrong way. Worse is not doing anything at all. Our work energies can always be redirected if misapplied; a mistake can always be tweaked and corrected.

But, as Heifetz points out, leadership and authority are not the same thing. Having a position of authority does not make one a good leader, nor does leading well require a position of authority. For organizations to succeed, workers at all levels–those with authority and those without–need to be proactive in their exercise of leadership. Lacking positional authority is not an excuse to do otherwise.

What do you think?

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