One of the most common mistakes we make at work, at home, and in our communities is confusing leadership with authority. Around the water cooler and our kitchen tables is a convenient refrain: “We need more leadership.” “If only we had a new department head, everything would be better.” “When the VP retires, we can make some real changes around here.” The problem with that thinking? Underlying those sentiments is the flawed belief that the work of leadership rests on the shoulders of the few: those at the top of the organisational chart, those with positional authority, those with weighty titles.
Two key consequences emerge from there:
1) Those top dogs have a tremendous set of pressures weighing on them–pressures to provide protection, order and direction to those in their surround. While fulfilling these obligations of authority is vital to healthy systems, this work has nothing to do with the real work of leadership. Leadership is disrupting the status quo and disappointing the expectations of your own people in service to a larger purpose. (Hardly the hallmark of those with substantial authority). As you consider this mindset, there’s a magical thinking to it: believing that those who have excelled at maintaining the status quo–thus their ability to move up through the ranks–are also those best-poised to dismantle the pieces of business as usual that have become insufficient.
2) As long as we continue to equate authority with leadership, the bulk of those in our halls and offices, around our conference room tables and exam rooms, are off the hook in doing the work of leadership. What if, rather than expecting authority to shoulder this work, we began to think in new ways? While we need strong, clear authority structures to hold us through the bumpy ride of leadership, we also need the “many” to show up, find their agency, and step into the vortex. If we begin to untangle authority (a role) from leadership (an act), we invite people from across the system to identify which pieces of the status quo are no longer working, where to innovate, and how to catalyze around this work to strengthen and grow the organisation as a whole. Imagine the possibilities when we begin to seek leadership not from those “out there” but rather from those closest to the very challenges we seek to surmount. . . those “in here”, in short: ourselves.