Are you leading beyond your authority?

In today’s complex and dotted-line organizational culture, your job frequently requires buy-in from people outside your direct authority. Influencing people who report to someone else can prove daunting—and an even greater challenge if you confuse the principles of leadership and authority. (They’re not the same.)

Contrary to what you may have learned in leadership training, you can effectively guide people who are outside your realm of authority. To do so, you must understand what leadership truly is and how it appears to those who are looking for it. The traditional model of leadership requires control (authority) to “make” people do what they need to do. Pulling rank, so the thinking goes, forces them to fall in line and meet goals and objectives. Fortunately, this has become an outdated philosophy that, we have come to realize, ignores basic human behavior.

Leadership vs. Authority

People apply themselves and do their best when they want to, not when they’re forced to. From a motivational standpoint, they seek interest, satisfaction, purpose, inspiration and personal reward. Having a sense of value and accomplishment encourages engagement—a virtually impossible prospect when they feel they’re being controlled.

Leadership fosters inspiration, whereas authority produces obligation. Authority is the supervisory responsibility to direct, decide and delegate. It is sometimes misused for personal gain. In contrast, leadership establishes goals or visions and inspires people to achieve them—a process accomplished through influence. Those influenced positively will follow willingly (the essence of true leadership).

Leadership success depends on knowing how to influence people and breed a desire to follow (as opposed to trying to mandate it via formal authority). Following a leader is a choice based on desire; trying to mandate it is misguided and ultimately doomed to fail.

Influence is the foundation of leadership, according to Clay Scroggins, author of How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge: Leveraging Influence When You Lack Authority (Zondervan, 2017). “Leaders who consistently leverage their authority to lead are less effective in the long term than leaders who leverage their influence,” he writes. Again, human behavior is the driving factor.

While almost everyone has the ability to influence others and lead in some capacity, many leaders fail to be inspirational and fall back into their default position: an insistence on asserting their authority. Ugh! Numerous research studies confirm that positional authority does not guarantee effective leadership. In fact, you don’t have to look far to see strongly wielded authoritative power that led to some of the poorest leadership outcomes.

When you’re leading beyond your authority it’s crucial to show others how reliable, trustworthy and respectable you can be. Noble leaders naturally exude these attributes.

How self-aware are you? Your identity relies heavily on how you view yourself. Knowing your abilities, limitations, values, mission and perspective allows you to perform an accurate self-assessment. Followers, colleagues and superiors will judge you on these factors, so you must continually work to improve your skills. You’ll be rewarded with greater trust.

People value leaders who have everyone’s best interests at heart, including those outside your direct authority. I think we’d all agree: Leaders who care about others are worth following. Being helpful, especially when there’s no direct benefit to yourself, commands respect and influence.

Dedication to excellence, without the intrusion of one’s ego, is a catalyst for inspiration and influence. The best leaders take ownership of the quest for positive change, while also giving credit to others—a potent combination for growing a following. Listening to others’ ideas and valuing their input forges a collective ownership.

What do you think?