Leading with and without authority

Posted on May 25, 2016

Blog by Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, Director at JHub and speaker at Clore Social residential – May 2016

“She has issues with authority.” That’s what my second grade teacher told my parents after I led my classmates in a minor mutiny around lack of snack choices. My parents weren’t sure whether to be delighted at my leadership potential or terrified that I was going to get kicked out of primary school for challenging authority! 

Many social activists experience similar issues around authority because creating social change fundamentally involves pushing up against the boundaries of established structures and ways of doing things. But that doesn’t mean authority is negative or evil. On the contrary, authority is a crucial force which leaders can mobilize for good.

There are even times when authority is exactly what is needed to solve a complex technical challenge. When an army needs to capture a position or when a surgeon needs to excise a cancer, it is wise to entrust the regiment or the operating room to a competent authority figure who has the know-how to fix the immediate problem. In situations which are not technical, however, authority will rarely be sufficient to produce the necessary change. So when a society needs to ask what issues are worth going to war over, or a person needs to stop smoking in order to preserve their health, something beyond an expert authority figure is needed. That something is leadership.

In his seminal work, Leading without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz defines leadership as "mobilizing people to do adaptive work." Unlike technical challenges, which require expertise and can be addressed with authority alone, adaptive work happens with new situations which challenge a group's established beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Leading a group through an adaptive challenge requires engaging them in finding a way forward as opposed to telling them what to do. So while authority figures can often be successful at solving technical problems and maintaining stability, leaders doing adaptive work will need to use other tools - such as raising challenges constructively and creating healthy disequilibrium within a system. That disequilibrium is what provides the necessary momentum for people to examine and alter their values, attitudes and behaviours. It is dangerous work - and often the person exercising this kind of leadership will not be a person who holds formal authority. That’s because the pressure on authority figures to maintain the status quo is huge - so huge that they often cannot lead change effectively. 

But that doesn't mean that authority should be demonized. On the contrary, the most effective results can arise from an alliance, often implicit, between those in authority positions (e.g. an elected official) and those leading without authority (e.g. a social activist). A clever authority figure will therefore use the disruption caused by an activist as a catalyst to help stakeholders examine their values and behaviours and create systemic change.

So don’t knock authority. It’s a necessary and useful tool in our leadership toolkit. Whether applied to a second grade snack time revolution or the Middle East crisis, we would benefit from creating alliances between those in positions of authority and activists who can serve as catalysts for social change.

For more on adaptive leadership, watch this video interview with Ronald Heifetz.

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