The Key to Having Both Authority and Power

A while back, a young family with a 7 year old boy moved into the neighborhood. The child was entering second grade, and the mother, mentioned to his teacher that he was shy and nervous about making new friends.  In class, the teacher noticed that too.  Thinking she was doing a good thing, she told the class she needed to leave the room for a few minutes and said that little Bobby would be in charge while she was out and that she expected everyone to listen to him.  When she returned a few minutes later, she found a train wreck.  The children were out of their seats, throwing papers, laughing, joking and making a lot of noise, and there was little Bobby,  with his head down on the desk, crying.  When the teacher came up to him, all he could say was ‘They didn’t listen to me.’


You see, the teacher gave him authority, but the class didn’t give him the power to exercise it.


Whether you’re 7 years old or 70, the relationship between authority and power is at the crux of leadership, so let’s look at the difference between the two:


  • Authority is granted from the top down. You (as a business owner) or someone above you (in an organizational or corporate structure) defines the responsibilities and actions that you have the right to assume in order to get the job done.   That doesn’t mean you have the power to exert your authority.
  • Power is given from the bottom up. It’s simply the ability to make people do things regardless of whether or not they want to do it.  The people on your team decide if you’re worthy of holding it.


Can people with no authority be powerful?

Can people with authority be powerless?

Can you hold both authority and power?


Yes, yes, and yes.   But you can’t demand it by virtue of your position.  It must be earned and in fact, the key to each question rests in how effective you are at influencing the behavior of other people. While Ken Blanchard stated, ‘The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority;’ he also said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”


To put those thoughts into action,  the wisest way to use authority is to grow your influence; and the best way to do that is to empower your team.  By demonstrating your trust in them, you begin to earn power. They start to trust your effectiveness as a leader and allow you to influence their behavior as you all work toward a common goal.  Make them part of the solution, not the problem. You won’t be giving up control.  In fact, you’ll be gaining focus and commitment, but more about that next time..


BTW, Bobby learned that too.  He was voted class President last term.


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