Leadership: It Should Not Be Equated with Mere Authority
Heifetz, Ronald, Nieman Reports
It took me ten years to write my book on leadership, that just came out in the fall. ["Leadership Without Easy Answers"] And it took ten years because the field is so fuzzy and blurry, and most efforts to analyze leadership are confused and confusing, and even internally inconsistent. Within the same chapter of a book on leadership, even within the same article on leadership, often, people will use words in internally inconsistent ways. So it took an awful lot of time, and hearing many, many hundreds of students from all over the world--practitioners in our executive and mid-career program, and some of you Niemans--it took many years of honing a series of theoretical ideas against the experiences, the successes and failures of many people, before I began to have any confidence that the conceptual framework I had been developing was useful as a sort of generalized way of analyzing leadership and related phenomena.
Well, let me tell you why it took ten years instead of 12 or 14 years. Finally, my wife said to me, "Either that book leaves the house, or you leave the house. " And I'm sure some of you writers know that experience: a real deadline.
In my thinking and writing and talking to a lot of people about this subject, it seems to me that there are several basic assumptions or sources of confusion about the subject of leadership. I do a lot of work in the intelligence community, helping people figure out how to analyze foreign officials, to do leadership analysis, as well as a lot of work in my classroom helping prepare people to be more effective in the practice of leadership. In both settings, there are some general sources of confusion. I'd like to share with you three of those common sources of confusion, since many of you are in the business of writing about public figures or business figures.
The first major source of confusion about leadership in our general discourse is the degree to which we equate leadership with authority. This is a big problem, because in our common language, we're always talking about the leader of the organization, or the leader of the gang, or the leadership of the Senate, or the leadership of the House, or the leaders of the country--when we really mean those people in senior positions of authority, because in the very next breath, we will contradict ourselves and say, "Why don't we see some leadership from these people?" So we know intuitively that leadership is not the same as having a top position of authority. Yet, we're constantly confusing and equating these two terms. So let me see if I can share with you at least where I've begun to come down, after, at times, breaking my brain trying to fathom this distinction.
Nearly every human organization has an authority structure, from the family and tribal societies--even gorilla and chimpanzee societies have authority structures. Well, at least in animal societies, they're called dominance hierarchies. Of course, there are enormous variations and kinds of authority structures across society, as we know, and across businesses, as well. But every organization, every human community, to be viable as a community, has to have some set of differential roles in which some people are authorized to do some things and other people are authorized to do other things.
Well, people in top positions of authority generally are authorized and expected to fulfill five basic functions. They're expected to provide clear direction. In a gorilla society, that means, find the water hole. If you don't find the water hole, if you don't meet people's expectations, you risk losing your authority. You are expected to protect the band from predators, from threat. And if you can't protect the organization from a reduction in revenue, or from Japanese competition, people wonder why they hired you.
You're supposed to control conflict, and keep people from breaking apart because of their internal rivalries, competitions, and disputes. …