Leading Beyond Authority

by Julia Middleton

Success across the circles

Beware: success in one circle does not guarantee success in the others. Some amazing campaigners are hugely successful on the outer rim of the outer circle. They take their time; they create their own legitimacy; they build glorious coalitions, and much more. But, back at base, within their authority, their core circle, it’s a shambles. They aren’t even prepared to delegate. On the other hand, you will find fantastic chief executives who are hugely successful in their core circle and then fail miserably (and, to them, very unexpectedly) in the outer circles.

Can you bring back what you learn out there?

Key point

The higher you go, the more illusory authority becomes. Leading beyond authority teaches you how to lead without exercising authority outright.

Definitely: people who learn to lead beyond their authority will find it useful when they return to their core circle. It happens because they will go just that little bit further before exercising their authority within the organisation – and the people they lead may well find this exciting. It will also prepare them for a shock which every single chief executive I have ever spoken to describes: that the higher you go in an organisation and the closer you get to achieving authority, the more illusory it becomes. In reality, the moments when people with authority can really use it become fewer and further between. Leading beyond authority is good preparation for this revelation.

Full circle

Sometimes, when you go into the outer circles, a strange thing happens. Leaders who have learned to do without authority are given it. Volunteered it by the people they are leading. Willingly and naturally. Because they have earned it. There are people who say that the real test of a leader is whether he or she can lead without authority. It sounds good – but I am not sure that it is true. I think the best leaders can lead when they have authority and when they don’t. The point is that they don’t need authority to be able to do it. The best can do it all. And there are plenty of them. They are not successful all the time – but no one ever is. The trouble is that most of them don’t think about how they do it. When questioned about it, they say: ‘But doesn’t everyone do it like this?’

If only!

Why have so few brilliant businessmen made brilliant politicians? Because they haven’t learnt to suffer fools gladly.

Lord Ashdown, former leader, Liberal Democrats