Is Authority Taboo in Modern Leadership?


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By: Corry Robertson, PCC

Woman pointing at project on desk

“What’s your authority on the matter?” I ask Derek who is trying to make sense of the insubordinate behaviour of one of his direct reports.

“My what?” 

This reply makes me sense that I have taken him off guard.

“What’s your authority to require that your employee stop this behaviour?  She has a job to do and it sounds like her actions are causing a lot of damage to the entire department.”

“I. Have. No. Idea.” The silence on the call tells of a cascade of clarity. 

“I really need to find out,” he said after a long pause.

It’s a challenge I see repeated over and over with my coaching clients.

Derek is a VP of Operations, and just like Patrick at the helm of a not-for-profit organization, Joanne a VP HR at a manufacturing plant and Susan a sales director, many of my clients have 3 things in common:

  1. They strive to be high-level leaders who get results through motivating, inspiring and guiding their teams.
  2. They abhor the ‘Old School’ authoritarian who sends employees scurrying like frightened mice.
  3. They are utterly exasperated by managing insubordinate employees.

Their shared aversion to calling rank made me wonder if modern leadership theory has caused the word “authority” to be taboo.

Where does authority fit in a desirable workplace culture?

The online Oxford Dictionary defines authority as:

The power or right to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience.

Give orders? Enforce obedience? Yuck.

A person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative sphere

Power and control? Pee-Eew!

When we look at famous management experts, we find more palatable answers, like this definition from Stephen Covey

“Management is formal authority given from above. Leadership is moral authority given from below and all around.”

And Ken Blanchard

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

There it is! Influence in, authority OUT!

But how does this help a manager whose employees are insubordinate?

Digging deeper I started a conversation with an online forum of executive coaches:  “What is the Leader-As-Coach approach to role authority and consequences?” I asked.

More than 20 peers contributed to the conversation.

The wisdom of the group agreed that when leaders use a coaching leadership style it empowers them sufficiently so that they don’t need to use authority and consequences can be avoided.

But how does this help a manager who has done his or her best to embrace the coach approach and still makes no progress with their troublesome direct reports?

A business is not a democracy

Then I remembered what change management expert, Romy Schnaiberg said in her 2016 webinar on performance improvement:

“A business is not a democracy”

That statement is like dawn cracking on the horizon. The onus is on a manager to empower the employees to succeed, however, the employee does not get to vote on whether the job gets done nor overrule the workplace standards for quality and personal comportment. 

Managers need to know the scope of their authority and direct reports need to know what boundaries cannot be crossed.  

Not so those at the helm can instill fear and panic into the hearts of their employees but so that all members respect guiding principles, standards, and codes of conduct that support safe, productive and harmonious workplaces.

Role authority must be present, like the big hammer that finds its way to the bottom of the tool box, tucked away at the back of the garage. Buried, because it’s force is so rarely needed, but there all the same. 

Work cultures where role authority is clearly defined and properly handled are stronger because strong, clear boundaries secure consistent fairness which is an important foundation for psychological safety.

The Leader-As-Coach Approach to Role Authority

In my practice I know leaders, and especially tech leaders, need an approach to role authority that guides them when dealing with employee issues. 

Here is my Leader-As-Coach approach to Role Authority:

Establish Focus:
Create and communicate vision, mission, and strategy.
Clarify roles, goals, and responsibilities.
Make decisions with integrity.

Explore Possibilities
Select the right people to brainstorm and implement plans.
Revive a team’s spirit by inspiring its members with a vision of a better future and their role in creating it.

Set Goals and Plan Actions
Explain the ‘why’.
Delegate and then help people manage their responsibilities.
Consistently champion standards of excellence.

Remove Barriers
Create winning conditions.
Break a tie or a stalemate situation.
Build on what is working.
Invest in your employees to advance their knowledge and skills.
Constantly share constructive and corrective feedback.
Make the tough decisions and follow through.

Review, Plan, Follow-up
Protect direct reports from being bullied and scapegoated.
Check in on progress to ensure goals are being achieved.
Manage performance through training, coaching, rewards, and consequences.
Step out of the spotlight and share the credit.
Praise publicly to highlight the positive.

Authority doesn’t have to be taboo. It’s a vital part of any organization and essential for employee engagement, retention and performance. 

Used effectively, authority helps leaders understand and improve relationships with their direct reports and create harmonious work cultures where insubordinate employees become a thing of the past.

How do you use authority in your work environment? Leave a comment, share your story.


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Corry Robertson

Sought-after coaching culture expert, Corry Robertson has been helping leaders uplevel employee retention and performance for over 20 years.

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