Genuine Leadership: from Power to Authority

 

The leadership fad

The figure of the all powerful leader is now outdated. Now almost nobody places much stock in this quasi-perfect leader who knows everything that there is to know. As rightly Peter Drucker said a few years ago, when he referred to the executive profile outlined in management textbooks, “What seems to be wanted is universal genius, and universal genius has always been in short supply.”

Moreover, it seems that leadership, as it is broadly understood, is not only desirable but necessary. In fact, leadership is something inherent to the human being. So what’s happening here then?

The problem of leadership is how it has been converted into a “processed product” that they have been trying to sell us for years, similar to “junk food”, instead of true leadership or “genuine leadership”, which is what I prefer to call it.

This “processed product”, i.e. the “artificial leadership” that the traditional models put forward is useless for knowledge work because their concepts are overly simplistic, and completely unrelated to the real complexity of the VUCA environments that we live in.

Shift from personal leadership to contextual leadership

The notion of leadership as a personal trait is wrong. Nobody is a leader always and for everything. People act as leaders at specific moments, under specific circumstances, and not for 100% of the time, as the human being is unpredictable by nature. That’s why the first mistake is the figure of the leader in itself because these leaders are idealized models, and in effect, non-existent.

The first change to make in the classic models of leadership is to incorporate the context of the definition. Leader, for what? Leader, when? Leader, how? To say leader without saying more is just empty. For example, there are people who show excellent qualities for leading in times of crisis and yet show a total lack of leadership in everyday situations. Others are very good at leading creative processes and very bad at leading the implementation of these ideas. Are these people leaders or not? The answer is obvious: yes, they are.

We can draw the conclusion that almost everyone can at least potentially be leading something at some point or other. Actually they will be. When we look at increasingly complex professional environments, discovering this leadership reality is excellent news, because it means that leadership is not what they have tried to make us believe so far; it is not at all a scarce resource available only to a chosen few. Quite to the contrary, it is a quality that almost everyone has.

Leading from power or authority

Apart from the above, the biggest mistake traditional organizations continue to make is to ignore the distinction Weber makes between power and authority.

Both power and authority function so that some people do what someone else mandates, proposes or decides. The big difference is that the source of power comes from coercion, while the source of authority comes from the will.

Organizations have spent decades making the mistake of trying to impose power structures onto the existing authority structures in place.

That’s because all organizations have leaders. Many. These are the people that others go to when they want to hear new ideas, solve a problem or find out more about something. Such people rarely appear in the most important positions in the organization charts.

These people are genuine leaders, that is to say, they lead from authority. They have earned the respect and credibility of their peers on merit and, that is why they are voluntarily followed by others.

In contrast, many of the imposed leaders, that is to say, the people the organization has empowered despite a lack of authority. They are only followed because they can coerce, whether they then do so or not.

Conclusion

The mistake organizations make is to ignore genuine networks of authority that already exist and impose artificial networks of power on them.

In knowledge work, and in the networked society which we are moving towards, it would be far smarter to use the existing networks of authority and empower them to make the most of their natural capacity. The alternative is to create artificial structures that are dysfunctional and don’t make sense.

I know it’s a major paradigm shift, but it also the way to end decades of “artificial leadership” and to finally tap into the enormous potential of “genuine leadership” that exists in organizations.

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