Leading Beyond Authority

by Julia Middleton


Was there ever a time when (to paraphrase John Donne) leaders could operate as islands, entire of themselves? Frankly, I doubt it. But if there was, that time has gone. Many organisations operate via silos, with each division or department generally looking upwards and seldom sideways at issues that cross the verticals. They need leaders who can see across the whole organisation and make the sum of the parts greater than the whole. They need leaders who understand the value of networks that extend far beyond the traditional confines and, more importantly, know how to lead them. The opportunities (and threats) ahead will not come neatly parcelled to fit the department, or division, or sector, or culture, or even country into which we have arranged ourselves. They will cross boundaries and come through walls – and our leaders need to be able to do this too.

And it doesn’t stop at organisations. Society needs leaders who can overcome the silo problem inside their organisation – and then move across different spheres of activity outside it and connect them too. Then, perhaps, we can start to shift the ‘silo problem’ in society as well. This requires leaders who are prepared to challenge the ‘butt out’ culture that tells everyone to ‘stick to their knitting’ and stop interfering where they don’t belong. Leaders with these skills can take responsibility for problems other than their own, both within organisations and in society at large. They can still lead, even when their legitimacy is constantly in question.

We need to nurture these leaders. We need to give them the confidence they need to legitimise themselves and challenge the old ways. And we need to make them successful as they create new ones. Why do so many leaders in this situation withdraw to their home territory, bruised, muttering about ‘them’ as they retreat? Because they simply do not know how to lead people who are not ‘theirs’. They do not know how to adapt when the instincts that led them to success in their own field do not work outside it.

I call this ‘leading beyond authority’. It’s not about having authority, then choosing not to use it; it’s about having no authority at all (and sometimes less than that). It’s about earning legitimacy with ideas that resonate, plus an approach to leadership that means people end up willingly granting authority to you.

This is vital – for organisations, for the people who lead them, for the people they lead and for society as a whole. And it’s different from conventional leadership – not completely different, but different enough to be worth exploring. And, for leaders of all kinds, in all kinds of positions and organisations, it is worth either mastering this skill set or, at the very least, learning how to do better at it.