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3 Unintended Consequences of Relying on Positional Authority

January 19, 2018


You can also find this article published by the Business Journals and LinkedIn.


While at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg Virginia, I undoubtedly learned many things (many of which, unfortunately, I have since forgotten!).

Surprisingly, one of the more important leadership principles I learned was not taught by any of my professors but was realized by simply walking around campus.


Being a perennial “Top Tourist Destination,” Williamsburg has many tourist drivers (read: distracted drivers). More than once, I saw college kids walking together, engrossed in conversation, cross the street without paying attention to oncoming vehicles only to see their lives flash before their eyes as a driver slammed on the brakes. Of course, like many crosswalks, there were signs that read “Drivers must yield to pedestrians.” That’s a great sign, but not compelling enough to trust my life to its effectiveness.


One day while standing at a crosswalk, I saw a student approaching while reading a textbook. He was not paying attention, and as he stepped into the street, a car sped toward us. Naturally, I put my arm out to stop him. At the time, I had a 20-year streak going that I was not interested in breaking: I had never witnessed vehicular manslaughter. Feeling like a modern-day superhero, I was surprised by the student’s reaction. He looked at me with irritation and said, “You know, they have to yield to us.”


Here’s the leadership lesson: if we are “dead right,” we may be right, but unfortunately, we’re still dead.


So, what does “dead right” look like in leadership? It is often characterized by an overreliance on positional authority to get things done. Historically, many leaders grow in prominence by utilizing their force of personality to drive and deliver business results while creating greater efficiencies. Don’t get me wrong. Clarity regarding positional authority is important. When appropriately exercised, authority can make a huge difference—even save lives.


But, there is a catch. Positional authority always has a limit to its effectiveness. Consider these three unintended consequences of an overreliance on positional authority:


1. The More It Is Used, The Less It Works


Like a drug, the overuse of authority has a diminishing impact. Leaders who regularly raise their voices will find moving forward they need to yell to get anything accomplished. If everything is urgent then nothing is. Because of their increased anxiety, many leaders resort to empty threats, which, over time, ultimately lead to less credibility and less influence.


2. It Leads To Buy-In, Not Ownership


This topic could be a standalone article, but in short, while our culture tends to use "buy-in" and "ownership" interchangeably, the concepts are not synonymous. Buy-in is needed when a decision has been made without significant input from the stakeholders. In this scenario the leader becomes a salesperson, “selling” the decision to stakeholders—as if they were buyers—by telling them how great the decision is and trying to convince them of its benefits.


When the decision does not deliver the promised benefits, who will the “buyers” blame? The “seller,” of course. Unfortunately, management often seeks buy-in for a solution to fix the problem created by the last solution they offered!


Ownership, on the other hand, is about process. Instead of acting as a salesperson, the leader’s role is to ask relevant and incisive questions about organizational values and principles—and how proposed strategies align with the organization’s DNA and the customer’s needs. When leaders encourage stakeholders to embrace their own struggles, they will be committed to the solution even when they encounter daunting challenges.


3. You Win The Battle But Lose The War


If my fellow student had been run over by the car, I imagine it would have been small consolation to find that the driver was convicted of a felony. Likewise, in our personal and professional lives, we often lose sight of the ideas, things and people that are most important to us. In fact, many times we are so misaligned that even success in our current activity won’t lead to what we really want. That is what I like to call an adventure in missing the point!


Overreliance on authority nearly always leads to showdowns. Showdowns then lead to an immediate need to exert greater authority. And the cycle continues.


Early in my leadership journey, I chose to be “dead right” more often than I’d like to admit. Self-reflection on those experiences resulted in greater leadership capacity because I recognized that leadership is pointless if it lacks influence. My takeaway: the best leaders in my life influenced me far beyond the reach of their positional authority.


To continue that growth, at the start of this new year, I’m wrestling with these questions:

In 2017 what scenarios did I prove that I was right, but come to realize that I was “dead right?"


In what specific area can I more fully align my thoughts, words and actions with the things that are most important to me?


Who can I invite into my story to hold me accountable?

I think an honest answering of these questions will lead each of us to greater alignment. I’ve asked my clients to join me in this exercise. Will you join us?


To join the conversation, comment below or on LinkedIn with your experiences and thoughts on positional authority and when you've seen it used well--and not so well!


At Chris Joyner Advising, LLC, our mission is to: Help Leaders Create Alignment. To learn more about how we can partner with you send us a note.


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