The Problem with Authority

Authority [mass noun] the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience: he had absolute authority over his subordinates.

An ‘authority gradient’ is a way of imagining how far and how steep the gap is between leaders and team members. The higher and steeper that gap the more formal the structures and relationships will be in the organization.

When I joined the army it was very clear that the authority gradient was large and precipitous. Even amongst Lieutenants – the most junior commissioned officers there were sharp gradations between those who were senior and those who were not. Rank amongst Lieutenants is like virtue amongst whores but the status seniority bequeathed to itself was an unfortunate part of the organisational culture: Unfortunate because authority usually gets in the way of developing performance. It stops discussion – too busy being important to engage in debate or challenge. It resists feedback, tending both to formalize this into systems for performance management and to ensure it only moves downwards. It gets in the way of learning. It lacks the humility to be curios, open minded and willing to fail or make mistakes. Authority leadership is all about personal ego protecting an image and using privilege to protect status. In my military experience authoritarian leadership invariably came from weakness. The weaker and more inadequate the leader the greater their reliance on authority.

I saw this picture change when I left the conventional military and arrived in a Special Forces unit. The authority gradient here was both short and shallow. The leadership culture was open to challenge, sought out and encouraged feedback and was good at learning quickly.

What’s the authority gradient in your team or organisation? If you use this as a health marker what does it tell you?


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