Personal Authority vs Institutional Authority

How can you be a leader if you don't have anyone to lead?

I believe we have entered a new business era - a time of leaders rather than managers. There is a lot of information available on how to be a leader (servant leadership, agile business management, etc etc etc), but much of it is focused on being better boss.

Don’t get me wrong - this is fantastic - it can’t come soon enough. But not all of us are bosses. How can you be a leader if you don’t have anyone to lead?

This is where we need to distinguish between two different forms of authority.

  1. Institutional Authority - where your authority (or right to lead) is instilled by virtue of the position you hold in the organisation.
  2. Personal Authority - where your authority (or right to lead) is instilled by those around you.

Obviously, a strong leader (in the boss definition) should have both, but it’s personal authority that I’m interested in.

An individual’s personal authority over you is strongly aligned to a) how much you trust their competence and b) sharing a commonality of purpose. A consultant, brought in to change an organization, needs a great deal of personal authority. Speaking from experience, they rarely have adequate institutional authority and yet are charged with changing the way 1000’s of people work. In this instance, a consultant brings with them a known competence in their field. What they need to do is build trust and commonality of purpose in order to be successful.

Another example, as a regular speaker, everytime I get on stage, the audience gives me personal authority over them. I can ask them to stand up and dance if I so choose (and have done so :-) ) and they will follow. I can also lose that authority, if I show a lack of competence or my talk isn’t what they thought (trust/commonality) then they will ignore me or leave.

The same is true of each of you. Each of you can learn to accrue and wield personal authority within your organisations. And here’s the secret, you can (and should) hold personal authority over your boss. As long as you are competent, trusted and aligned - you can tell your boss what to do.