Leading Beyond Authority

by Julia Middleton

In a nutshell

1. What is leading beyond authority?

People who lead beyond their authority can produce change beyond their direct circle of control. They have the ability to

  • Effect change – even when they can’t instruct or inspire trust in familiar ways
  • Lead networks
  • Sustain broader perspectives and be confident about making connections between quite different groups of people and reconciling different worlds.


2. What does it mean to lead beyond authority?

People who lead beyond their authority are leaders who are those who are more skilled in several aspects of leadership:

  • They see the wider context and their role in it
  • They adapt fast in new surroundings
  • They produce change wherever they are.


3. The inner circle of authority

Most leaders have an inner circle, where they are in authority.

  • They must motivate the people within their circle of authority, but ultimately they can bonus or sack them.
  • They have usually been appointed or elected to the role.
  • Most of the leadership development they receive as they progress aims to make them more effective in this circle.


4. The first outer circle

The first outer circle represents the whole organisation within which the leader operates. It’s in this outer ring that their best people add the most value to the organisation. Any chief executive will want to get their organisation operating horizontally as well as vertically, but there are problems:

  • In the first outer circle, there is no authority
  • Leaders who step outside their circle of authority find their legitimacy is constantly in question, with other leaders demanding to know why they are messing about in territory that is not their own
  • It takes forever to make anything happen
  • You have to spend your whole time building coalitions if you want to get anything done
  • It’s for achievements in your own circle that you receive recognition.


5. The second outer circle

The second outer circle represents society as a whole. Operating beyond authority is even tougher here than within the first outer circle, but there are many reasons – some organisational, some societal – for leaders to operate in this space:

  • Organisations have shareholders and partners to keep onside
  • Contracting out has become more common
  • However excellent their organisation becomes, if other organisations are not going in the same direction, none of them will succeed
  • If the leaders don’t get out into the changing world, they run the risk of not being sufficiently connected to spot the opportunities and threats there
  • Society needs the brains and abilities of all of us if it is to run well


6. Step by step or leaps and bounds?

It is generally best to progress circle by circle, rather than with one big bound.

  • Steps need to be incremental, but not too cautious.
  • The more steps you take, the easier it tends to become to take the next step.
  • Experience in negotiating outer circles helps you as your own core circle expands.


7. Success across the circles

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, but back at base, within their core circle, it’s a shambles
  • Some fantastic chief executives, who are hugely successful in their core circle, fail miserably in the outer circles
  • On the whole, leading beyond authority is good preparation for the higher posts, where authority is rarely exercised
  • Leaders in the outer circles learn to lead when they have authority and when they don’t.


8. Stories from people who have done it

One of the best ways to learn about this skill is to ask people who have excelled in this field when they started moving across the circles, and why.

  • Lord Puttnam says ‘Whichever circle I am in, I always prefer the cafe style. I love the small teams and the discussions. All I really need is a pen, some paper, and a phone.’
  • James Ramsbotham says: ‘I am interested in every point of view – and I know how easy it is to cloud one’s judgment by having too strong an opinion of one’s own.’
  • Pete Connolly says: ‘I left my core circle because I got so angry. Because I love Leeds and I don’t think there are enough voices in the city who ask difficult questions of those in power.’
  • Richard Greenhalgh says: ‘[failing to convince the public of the harmlessness of GMO soya] was an excellent learning process for a leader! I then became more and more interested in the outer circles.’
  • Cyril Ramaphosa says: ‘When I started on the task of sorting out the [South African] mine workers, I consciously chose to leave the authority I had because I took the view that others before me had failed by trying to operate it this way and that I would be better off taking on the task with no authority at all.’


9. Ten keys to leading beyond authority

From conversations with successful leaders, we can identify ten key elements to leading beyond authority:

  • Be prepared to leave certain beliefs and behaviours behind
  • Adapting to a new environment is not just about getting things right – it’s about learning the rules to the game, creating networks and building coalitions
  • Developing your personal brand – and protecting it – is critical
  • When leading beyond authority, your interactions with people, the way you get new insights and ideas and your ability to build coalitions all become more important
  • Our ability to effect change is greatly influenced by our understanding of power – where it comes from and how we use it
  • An essential part of leading beyond authority is understanding the need for and being able to play different roles, in different positions, at different times – depending on the situation
  • Courage need to be based on an understanding of the issues, challenges, risks and the other stakeholders involved
  • The people involved are central to making any change happen
  • Beyond your authority, you have to have passion, but passion alone is not enough – you need to have resonance too.


10. What should you leave behind?

You need to question your existing beliefs and assumptions:

  • Change will not happen just because you tell people what to do
  • There will be questions and challenges, and a well-made case will not, on its own, achieve a result
  • Change will not come through hierarchies, but through networks
  • You will need to cope with a degree of untidiness and chaos


11. Adapting to a new environment

It is going to be a challenge and it is going to be new to you. The way change happens and is led will feel different to the world you are used to.

  • To gain credibility you will need to understand the new context, the issues, the sources of power and the pitfalls.
  • The ability to ask the right questions comes to the forefront as it becomes a more valuable asset than knowing the right answers.


12. Who do you need to be?

Working out who you are, what you stand for, and where you will and won’t compromise provides a strong base for leading change.

  • Knowing your own opinions, remaining independent and developing your brand will allow you to provide great direction and assert more influence with others.
  • Self-belief provides a sense of direction and belief in the face of challenge. It differs here from confidence and this is an important area to explore.
  • Humility is about being involved in something for the sake of the change, or the issue, not for yourself, and being prepared to compromise.


13. Pace and timing

Leading beyond authority is a long game: quick wins are few and far between and results and rewards not always tangible.

  • Leading change in complex areas requires the leader to have thought through many options and be able to adapt and develop a new strategy.
  • It is important not to allow frustration or tiredness take over, and to make sure your energy levels remain high, that you have supporters and are working on something you are passionate about.


14. Resetting your radar

When learning to lead beyond authority, you need to be able to work with and inspire people who are different from you. You will start to work with people who may not have received the same professional training or may not share the same beliefs or ways of working as you, but who will become a source of creativity, challenge and support.

  • An interest in people becomes a much more important aspect of your leadership.
  • Leaders need to become more aware of the filters and influences that affect how we work and network with other people.


15. The sources of power

If you are leading beyond your authority, different sources of power work to different degrees:

  • The power of position is unlikely to help you much when leading beyond authority
  • The power of personality comes from your strength of character
  • The power of ideas is acquired through the quality of your ideas, your creativity
  • The power to communicate is your ability to get across an idea or message in a way which resonates with people, both individually and in groups
  • The power to connect is the power you gain if you are able to see connections and overlaps and use your networks to bring all the pieces together
  • The power to invest comes if you can invest resources or cash
  • The power to reward comes from your ability to reward people financially or through recognition


16. Playing different roles

An essential part of leading beyond authority is the understanding that you will inevitably need to play different roles at different times in different situations. There are no hard and fast rules, leaders will need to experiment and learn from themselves and others in order to work out which role (or combination of roles) is likely to be most useful in leading change. There are four roles:

  • Transformer
  • Rebel
  • Pawn
  • Expert idiot


17. Courage and caution

When stepping into a different world, either one that is physically different or with different people, or into a way of leading that is different, a leader will need to develop their courage.

  • Just like a muscle, the courage habit needs developing and maintaining.
  • You will need the courage to listen to new ideas and take feedback about yourself.
  • You also need the courage to challenge.


18. Consensus versus coalition

When leading beyond authority, leaders need to be able to plan out who they are going to work with, who are the supporters of the change, who is against it, what are the obstacles that can be overcome and what needs to be worked around. It becomes important to build guiding coalitions and not to work for consensus. Some questions to ask are these:

  • How do you get around people who present obstacles?
  • What is the difference between manipulating people and situations and making sure you can achieve the end goal? How do you manage this?


19. Passion and resonance

Beyond your authority, you have to have passion.

  • There will be times when a leader gets it wrong by displaying their enthusiasm and excitement when what was needed was a calmer and more dispassionate approach.
  • At other times, a sense of passion and display of care may be needed to break a deadlock or inspire others.
  • The range of different people, ways of working and professional languages requires a leader to find ways to resonate, express themselves and get people listening without just shouting louder.


20. Are you leading beyond your authority?

This quiz is designed to tell you how well you are doing at leading beyond your authority.