Authority Cannot Be Assigned

“While position can be assigned, the privileges of authority and respect are earned through the execution of leadership.”

In every organization there are leaders and there are followers. There are also persons assigned to be leaders and persons assigned to be followers. The actualities rarely ( if ever ) correspond perfectly with the assignments.

Authority and respect cannot be assigned. It cannot be bestowed upon an individual by title or position. Every human being carries the authority and respect they earn with them as a person, they do not leave it behind for their successor. A position, no matter how prestigious, can never inherently carry qualities reserved for individuals.

When an individual is placed into a position designed to carry leadership, they accept the responsibility of earning the respect of their team. By earning this respect, the leader will be granted authority by the team they have been positioned over. But the appointed leader will not become the actual team leader without first earning its respect. The only way to earn the respect of the team is through practicing leadership. What, then, is the practice of leadership?

The easiest answer to the question of leadership is to ask yourself another question: what would inspire me to follow someone? What must they prove to me before I am willing to go with them into the breach? The following points are my answer to this question.

A leader cares about their people

Before being willing to follow someone, you want to know that they will do their best to keep you safe, to help you succeed, and to bring you growth and opportunity. You want to know that should a situation arise where either your interest or the leader’s interest must be sacrificed, it is the leader’s interest that will fall to the wayside. That is why you follow them. That is the price they pay for the privilege of their position.

A leader is an expert in their field

Troops are not lead into battle by lawyers, they are lead by soldiers who have shown superior aptitude and ability. Similarly, a team of engineers tasked with building a bridge should not be lead by a marketer, nor should a group of lifeguards watching over a pool be lead by a professional cook. Leaders must be expert in the field in which they and their team are expected to perform. Anything less sets the assigned leader up for immediate failure as they will never be able to garner the respect they need. You follow a leader because they are more expert than you, not because they have a title.

A leader exposes themselves to risk first

When I wrote about Lessons Learned from Paintballing in Arizona, I gave an example of people being afraid to move forward and needing someone else to take risks for them. Leaders are calculated-risk-takers. When a necessary but dangerous or risky situation faces the team, they are the first to step into it and expose themselves to the possible consequences. This action shows the team that they believe in the cause and will shoulder responsibility for the team. A leader who has earned the respect of their team can expect their team to follow them in this risk taking, but it is the leader who steps forward first.

A leader is situationally aware

Because a leader is a decision-maker, they must also be informed and aware. A leader who has tremendous academic knowledge of ideals but no awareness of the actual situation ‘on the ground’ is not just useless, they are dangerous. A leader should be expected to have an awareness of the challenges and obstacles faced by their team, the strategic direction and plans of any leadership above them, and the general movements and activities of lateral teams within the organization. Having this situational awareness allows the leader to act properly with both attention to the little things and an eye toward the larger strategic vision. Further, the team can always trust the leader to get them to the right destination, even if they do not fully understand the path taken.

A leader is responsibly flexible and self-disrupting

The primary job of a leader is to help their organization to achieve its strategic vision by empowering their team to accomplish assigned goals or milestones. In doing so, they cannot display any rigidity for process or academic example. While principles and protocols may be established and generally held to, the leader must display a flexibility in execution that allows for their team to adapt to the situations around them and conquer challenges in the right way. As such, a leader needs to be capable of challenging their own ideas and experimenting with new ways to do things. A caution, however, as a leader also needs the confidence to know when they are pursuing the right strategy and the strength to hold the team to that strategy when its outcome is in question. This ‘flexible confidence’ is a challenging balance to strike, but an absolutely necessary skill for great leaders to develop.

In listing the five leadership characteristics above, I have left out the most basic, obvious, and absolutely required characteristic any leader must embrace. A leader must lead from the front, not behind. This principle is almost perfectly represented through an image I’ve seen circulate around the internet several times, shared below.

Does the type of leader that I’ve described above qualify as someone you would follow? Am I missing important leadership characteristics in my list? Are there characteristics listed above that you disagree with? I’m always interested in feedback and further learning, so please share. Further, if you found this post to be a worthwhile read, please press the “recommend” button below and share with others you think will enjoy the read.

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