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Management Development

Leading without authority

Leading without authority
Published: September 23, 2020
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As governments, businesses and communities around the world struggle in the continued grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, it becomes clear that what we are living through is not just a health crisis, but also a crisis of leadership.

A crisis of leadership is not a crisis that is easily beheld or tackled. The problems and solutions are often deeply embedded in complexity and require us to reframe lots of assumptions and beliefs. In general, we prefer a good old-fashioned crisis which has a single enemy or clear objective and which can be conquered through a combination of grit, hard work and rational problem solving. The leadership crisis isn’t like that, and so we struggle.

The leadership vacuum

Why do I say that there is a leadership crisis? Because everywhere I look I see a leadership gap, often in the face of issues that pose substantial global threats: in our handling of the pandemic, in global inaction around climate change, and in the failure of leadership in the face of the refugee crisis. Important businesses have been brought low by the failure of their leaders to act with integrity and shoulder their leadership responsibilities effectively. How many other organisations are harbouring this kind of dishonesty and greed? How many organisations can truly claim to be great places to work? Employee engagement figures – one potential proxy for healthy workplaces – continue to flat-line.

If the leadership crisis is real it isn’t because we have a shortage of leaders; it is because too many of them are not leading effectively. When was the last time someone you know who holds positional authority as an organisational leader made a meaningful decision and stood by their judgment? When did they last do something significant in service to the wider organisational goals, making memorable, impactful action? If you are struggling to think of something then you are not alone. Too many leaders position themselves in such a way as to avoid taking action, playing it safe, passing the buck, ducking, weaving and procrastinating. 

It is in this context that I find myself regularly asked how people can take a lead in their company when they have no formal authority. Most humans have an innate desire to fill a leadership vacuum. At the same time, many organisations are trying to move away from traditional hierarchical structures of authority towards something much flatter, more matrix and more project-based. Most of what these companies are trying to achieve is a change in behaviour – particularly leadership behaviour – but they don’t know how to do that, so they change the structure instead.

We know that organisational structure should follow purpose. But too often it is the structure that dictates the purpose and we end up limited by our organisational operating systems. Leaders aren’t made simply by reorganising them into a position of authority. So what happens when we create a flatter more ‘empowering’ culture? Does leadership flow? 

What is leadership?

To illuminate the problem of how to lead without authority we need to explore what we mean by ‘leadership’. There is a long history of associating leadership with exceptional personality: the ‘leaders-are-born-not-made’ theory. But if personality was the only factor we would be forced to rely on accidents of birth and most people would be written-off. Furthermore, social scientists searching for the personality factors that would reliably predict leadership ability have been unable to agree on anything more than a handful of very general traits – such as intelligence, drive and trustworthiness.

We need a more nuanced view of leadership that can support practical leadership development. For me, this can be summarised in three points. Firstly, it is easier to develop the capacity for leadership than it is to make a leader. Secondly, leadership happens as action: when one person does or says something that changes things or inspires others. Thirdly, there is no one correct way of looking at leadership – there are as many kinds of leadership as there are people, and as many kinds of leadership action as there are situations.

A great starting point is to simply assume that everyone has the capacity for leadership, to some degree. This capacity may be thought of as a potential, stored up like energy in a battery, until the right circumstances come along to release it or complete the circuit. So, in a moment anyone might rise to the occasion, speak out, take a chance and make something new happen. It is a lot easier to develop a capacity than it is to change someone’s personality.

It is also clear that leadership is only ever manifested as action. A decision to step up to the plate is as an act of leadership – whether the actor is the chief executive or the humblest operative. A working definition of an act of leadership might be that others regard it as sincere, legitimate, plausible, having a chance of success, and that they, in turn, are moved by it to act.

Everyone has the capacity to act, but not everyone does. To develop that capacity, we need to work out what makes the difference between action and inaction. We know that people are often unwilling to act to help others if they think they are anonymous and/or unaccountable, if they think there is someone better equipped, or if they feel that they are unlikely to meet the person/people again. It is also easier to respond if you have an available mental model of what is going on – if you have rehearsed the situation in your mind, or if you accept it as novel and suspend judgment long enough for a new interpretation to form. The willingness to act and the possession of a model that tells you when action is necessary both increase the capacity for action. Leadership metaphors often emphasise an upwards or outwards movement: ‘rise to the occasion’, ‘take a stand’, ‘step up to the plate’. Superficial leadership might be based on salience; but deeper leadership is about taking risks.

Notice, decide, act

For leadership to happen three things need to take place. Firstly we need to notice that action is required. Secondly, we must decide whether to act or not (check your conscience in the moment of decision; it is a useful guide to action). Finally, we must act.

Mindfulness can help us build this ability to notice, decide and act. Mindfulness is a mixture of self-awareness, alertness, sensitivity to others, situational flexibility, and being poised to act. It is also mindfulness of purpose, that is, having a general goal that shapes momentary action. It connects conscience with action and, crucially, helps us to focus our attention both externally and internally, connecting the world with our personal internal state. Mindfulness brings a ’clarity of perception’ that assists the process of noticing and acting. 

In these turbulent times, we desperately need to close the leadership gap. We need more leadership action, not more leaders. In my view, an individual mindfulness practice should be combined with the discarding of simple assumptions about what leadership is and is not, and we must acknowledge that we are all called to lead, in the moment, in the face of our conscience and in the sure and certain knowledge that it is the only way that we will make the world a better place.

Grahame Broadbelt is Global Head of Communication and R&D at Impact.