The Difference Between Power and Authority in Leadership

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 15th July 2016

At a basic level, leaders need power. They need the power to influence, to develop, and to enable people. All of these are fundamental to making things happen, and therefore to the ability to do the job of a leader.

However, this isn’t the same as having authority and rank. Indeed, some of the most powerful leadership can arise when these things are deliberately relinquished.

The leader’s power should always be seen as a means to an end, with the ‘end’ being the achievement of worthwhile outcomes for the greater good.

The Difference Between Power and Authority in Leadership

Who can have power?

It’s fair to say that someone can have the power to influence, develop and enable without being officially recognised as the leader of a group of people. In many contexts, it is possible (necessary even) to exert influence even when not in a position of authority. This might happen in a meeting with a higher level of management, in a project situation, and in many other contexts.

French and Raven wrote extensively on the subject of leadership and power in the 1950s and 60s, and their ‘five powers’ thinking remains influential and insightful. In their model, one of the five powers is ‘referent’ power, which is the power to influence by role-modelling, or being seen as admirable and worthy of respect. Individuals who possess this power have the ability to be influential and attract followers, regardless of their actual level of authority.

In fact, some of the most influential leaders do not have the classic extrovert personality type. For example, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa did not command and control, but provided inspiring examples to their followers. This created a commitment that was stronger than the compliance generated through reward and punishment.

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Finding the right balance

As we’ve seen, it’s important for leaders to have the power to engage their people, but they don’t necessarily need to be in full control at all times.

Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s leadership continuum suggests that even those who do hold a position of management responsibility may deliberately choose the level of authority they exert, sharing their authority with others in their team in order to develop ability and increase motivation.

Similarly, McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y explores the polar opposites at either end of this continuum. It contrasts an authoritarian management style focused on reward and punishment, with one that encourages autonomy on the part of team members. Each of these styles needs to be adopted in different contexts, and to different extents.

Leaders who take an autocratic approach can often be overly focused on results, and neglect to consider the development of the team and individuals throughout the process. Adair’s Action Centred Leadership model talks about the importance of leaders making intelligent and deliberate choices about their leadership style with the intention of empowering and motivating their people to achieve high levels of performance.

The intent of leadership is to deliver worthwhile outcomes for the greater good, and in the pursuit of a vision of a better tomorrow. The exertion of power should be supportive to that intent. It isn’t about winning, or scoring points, or pulling rank, or gaining personal benefit. As with all aspects of contemporary leadership, it’s not about you (the leader), but about everybody else, from customers, to colleagues, to shareholders.

Like the powers of Superman or Wonderwoman, a leader’s power should always be used for good.

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