Balancing Power and Authority: An Essential Leadership Skill

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

Leaders wield both power and authority. These are the two main channels they use to exercise leadership. However, only intelligent leaders understand the peculiarities of power and authority and the subtle dynamic that exists between the two. 

Though seemingly antithetic, power and authority are symbiotic

Power-based Leadership

Power is the ability to coerce others to do the leader’s will, often against their own will, or better judgment. Leaders who resort to this type of approach can exercise power on account of their perceived or real might. 

“It is better to be feared than loved,” said Niccolo Machiavelli. Although, he also added: “if you cannot be both.”

The problem with leadership based on the wielding of power and fear is that it alienates followers. The leader soon finds him/herself without anyone to lead. 

That said, power does have its place in intelligent leadership. Sometimes, using power is the right thing to do. One would presumably not hesitate to use power to pull a child from the path of oncoming traffic. Likewise, the intelligent leader will not hesitate to fire an employee whose behavior justifies such a harsh measure. 

Formal and Informal Authority

To some degree, power and authority are symbiotic in the context of intelligent leadership. One draws from the other and vice-versa. While power is simple and straightforward, authority is quite a bit more intricate and subtle.

True authority influences people. It makes them want to do as their leader wishes. 

  • Formal authority is the type of authority that leaders automatically receive as a direct consequence of their title/position. As such, one does not have to earn formal authority.

Formal authority lends itself well to a leadership style that relies on power. It also has its limitations, often undermined by the informal relationships that exist within every organization. 

  • Informal authority is the authority a leader earns through building relationships, credibility, trust, and rapport. A leader with strong informal authority is a good listener and has a high level of emotional intelligence. 

Such a leader can influence reports as well as senior executives if needed. This type of leader has mastered the power/authority dynamic. 

The Attributes of Authority

The intelligent exercising of authority and power requires a few essential leadership skills. 

True authority inspires through courage instead of compelling through fear.

  • Decisiveness is the ability to “make things happen”. Leaders often face tough decisions that bear no dithering. 
  • Persuasiveness is one of the leadership skills that allow leaders to cooperate and collaborate with others. Abusers of power usually lack this skill. 
  • Reliability. An influential leader needs to do as he/she says he/she will. A lack of reliability often translates as a lack of sincerity or worse: cluelessness. 
  • Courage is an attribute one would assume is impossible to develop. Leadership training has long cracked the code of courage, however. Its key resides in strong convictions, honesty, and alignment with organizational goals and culture. 
  • Inspiration. True authority is inspirational. A leader possessing this type of authority will make employees feel like they are part of something greater. Such employees see themselves as builders of cathedrals, even if they shovel gravel at the construction site. 

Leadership training is about teaching leaders how to balance power and authority. Mastering this balancing act is an essential leadership skill indeed. 

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