Authority vs. Leadership

by Wiz

in Lessons,Podcasts

In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, author John Maxwell writes that “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”  I didn’t necessarily buy that at first.  Sure, there was an influence component in leadership, but I felt there was certainly more to it than that.  In my world as a military officer, for example, I felt that rank, background and experience was at least as important as influence – maybe more so. 

What I eventually found was that knowledge and experience were nice things to have – often essential to successfully accomplish tasks – but not requirements for leadership.  (World War II hero Audie Murphy, for example, was an undeniable leader even as a raw rookie soldier in his first battle.)  And military rank (think “title” or “position” in the civilian world) is more of an indicator of authority than leadership ability.  In my podcast I outline what I think is the difference between the two. 

 I’d really like to know your thoughts on this!  (5:08)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Zapp November 30, 2007 at 2:09 pm

Wiz – You hit the nail on the head with this post.

It immediately reminded me of a time when I was the XO (second in command) of a battalion. My commanding officer (CO) heard about an alleged incident with 3 of our junior officers while we were forward deployed to Puerto Rico. He directed me to hold a mock Captain’s Mast – he couldn’t do this himself because then it would HAVE to go on the official record. He wanted me to chew them out royally and let the 3 officers know their behavior was unacceptable and they were just as accountable for their actions as anyone else.

In principle I was in agreement. But I debated with the CO – as best I could given our relative positions of authority – to let me quietly ask some questions first and gather more facts. You see, the accusations just didn’t fit the reputation and past behavior of the 3 officers in question. All we had was an interpretation from a person who observed something from a distance.

Well, the CO used his authority and directed me to hold the mock Captain’s Mast.

During the mast I quickly found out that reality was far from perception. The observer’s interpretation and conclusions were all wrong. The officers did absolutely nothing wrong or even remotely wrong. One giant misunderstanding! And the 3 officers were humiliated (no way could this mock Mast be conducted secretly), embarrassed, and offended that they weren’t at least given the respect of being able to explain before action was taken.

Unfortunately our CO reacted quickly and exercised his authority and not his leadership. I believe the course of action actually undermined his leadership a bit.

Now I don’t want to sound like I’m perfect! Far from it. But I am more inclined to ask some probing questions before leaping into action.

So you shared a great example of using leadership backed by authority for a positive outcome. My example is in contrast: Authority was exercised too quickly without being tempered by sound leadership, thereby tarnishing reputations in the process.

Keep those pearls of leadership wisdom coming!


David Jimenez January 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm

This is a great comparison between Authority and Leadership. Some leaders fail to realize that the two are not synonymous and being a leader is much more than directing people to accomplish a mission. Leaders cannot simply rely on their management capabilities and expect that they will have a successful organization. I think that it is important to also look at the difference between the military officers who are mangers versus the military officers who are leaders.

The past thirteen years of service in the United States Army has given me the opportunity to work with a wide variety of individuals. They were all hard working effective individuals; however, they usually fell into one of two categories: Manager or Leader. Effective managers are not the same as effective leaders and even though both individuals have the ability to “get the job done” by influencing others, focusing individuals on mission accomplishment, and establishing a plan, there are substantial differences that make leaders more effective than the everyday manager. It is my opinion that managers plan, direct, and control while effective leaders set strategies, build teams, and motivate individuals to accomplish tasks that they would not normally want to do. Those organizations that were successful, more times than not, were lead by an effective leader vice manager.

Major David Jimenez, Student, Command and General Staff College, Redstone Arsenal Campus, Alabama.

Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”


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