In creating a welcome packet for our upcoming 2017 Summit, we realized we were missing an “official” description for one of the BambooHR company values, Lead from Where You Are. That came as a surprise, considering how critical we feel that value statement is to us as an organization; it’s one of the reasons we feel we’ve been able to maintain our growth, it’s essential to our culture of shared responsibility, and it’s even reflected in the way our company structure has evolved over time.
While researching the topic to find inspiration for the assignment, one thing struck me as important to define: the difference between authority and leadership. On the one hand, it almost goes without saying; perhaps it’s as simple as placing the two words closer together to realize the difference. But it feels sometimes that people in positions of authority believe the two are equivalent, or somehow should be. They seem confused when their title or the responsibility they’ve been given doesn’t automatically inspire devotion from those in nominally lower roles, and they become frustrated when projects take longer than estimated or don’t meet their expectations. They blame poor process or inattention to detail, but more often the reason is poor leadership.
Authority doesn’t grant you automatic devotion, nor does it inspire those around you. It lends you the power to give orders, but a good leader realizes their role involves much more than giving orders and observing the results. A good leader is in the middle of the effort, inspiring their colleagues to work harder by the example they set themselves, helping solve issues that hinder smooth production and taking responsibility for problems they didn’t create. They lift from within like a strongman carrying a Volkswagen with no engine, and they advocate on behalf of the team when critics question their abilities.
Instead of giving orders, leaders ask for help shouldering the load. Rather than passively observing, they participate. They use their knowledge to inspire and empower, not as a tool of oppression or a badge of rank. When the time comes for swift action, the example they’ve set and the relationships they’ve built allow them to direct with authority, because they’ve earned that authority through mutual respect. The people who work with a true leader trust that he has their best interests in mind, and that he will do as much or more to reach the team’s collective goal.
Don’t expect to lead simply because someone gave you a title. In fact, throw away the title and work alongside your colleagues; if you’re worthy, the title will return to you as a gift, and you’ll realize it’s worthless as anything else. Authority is just the position. Leadership is the character of the player.
That’s just one writer’s opinion, though. I’d love to hear what you think separates authority from leadership, or if they’re in fact more similar than I’m suggesting. Please let me know in the comments section.