Causes of Leadership Failure – Emphasis of the “Authority” of Leadership


Authority - something you have, or need to emphasize?Efficient leaders lead by encouraging, not by trying to instill fear in the hearts of their followers. Leaders who try to impress followers with their “authority” come within the category of leadership through force. Real leaders have no need to advertise that fact except by their conduct, sympathy, understanding, fairness and a demonstration of knowledge of the job. – Napoleon Hill

[This is the 9th in a series discussing the causes of leadership failure presented by Napoleon Hill]

Austin Cline wrote an article discussing the differences between authority, power, and legitimacy. He first defines power as “the ability, whether personal or social, to get things done – either to enforce one’s own will or to enforce the collective will of some group over others.” He then differentiates that from legitimacy, in that the latter is “a socially constructed and psychologically accepted right to exercise power.” So while power is having the means and ability to make things happen, legitimacy is a social construct, acknowledged by all, that a person or entity has the right to exercise such power – but doesn’t necessarily mean the power resides with that person/entity. Authority, on the other hand, goes further. According to Cline, “It isn’t simply that [you accept] the factual existence of power or legitimacy; rather, it’s also that [you accept] that an authority figure is justified in making a decision without also explaining the reason for that decision and persuading others to accept that the decision was reached properly.”

Mr. Cline highlights something we fundamentally acknowledge: If you have authority, everyone knows and acknowledges it. You don’t have to insist people respect it. The moment your insistence is a necessary part of others recognizing your “authority,” you’ve lost it. In my mind, this is the primary reason Napoleon Hill lists emphasis of leadership “authority” as a cause for its failure.

How does this negative trait take root in us? What signs indicate it’s presence? How can we get rid of it?

“Hey! I’m an Authority Figure!”

Why would anyone feel the need to emphasize their authority as a leader? Here are a few reasons:

  1. They’re new to an organization and want to establish their position quickly.
  2. They’re new to their leadership role and want others to respect them.
  3. They’ve been taught this is the best way to establish their position as leaders.
  4. They’re generally insecure, and find comfort in “lording it over” others.
  5. They’re…how can I put it nicely…a tool.

The first four reasons deal with a measure of insecurity and/or poor development as a leader. Those are relatively easily quantified circumstances, and therefore relatively simple for a person to address. The last reason – that will take a lot more than one post to fully address.

What are some overt and subtle ways we manifest this trait? Think about how often you find yourself using expressions like these:

  • “Because I said so.”
  • “You need to respect me.”
  • “Do you know who I am?”
  • “I’m in charge here!”
  • “Are you questioning me?”
  • “You need to recognize!”

No, I’m not saying it’s wrong to say those things. However, in a business setting, if you find yourself interspersing conversations regularly with expressions similar to those above, particularly if you say them before any perceived infraction occurs as a pre-emptive strike, then maybe you’re guilty of emphasizing the “authority” of your leadership. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, if you have to emphasize it, then it’s likely your “authority” doesn’t exist.

In addition to what you say, consider how you think about your direct reports. Do you find yourself painting a picture of people who are looking to shirk their duties? Are they lazy and apt to cut corners in your mind? Instead of collaborators, do you think of those who report to you as people to keep in line? Granted, a few might fit that description. However, if you imagine the majority of workers reporting to you in this way, there might be a problem.

If you recognize any of these tendencies in yourself, what can you do about it?

Great Leaders are Made, not Born


You can learn to be a great leader

Leadership isn’t inherent. We create leaders. Our upbringing, training, and experiences in life all contribute to our leadership skills. Still, we can benefit from a structured program that helps ingrain the attributes of leadership into people through assigning tasks designed to stretch a person and accountability for completing the tasks.

An example of this is the U.S. Military. Mark Smith, a six-time recipient of the Navy Achievement Medal and honored three times as Sailor of the Year for the 3rd Marine Division, said this about the Navy’s approach to leadership training: “The military is a leadership factory. That’s their secret. They are a factory, and they pump out leaders. Amazingly, they can take young people from every different background, educational level, social level, race, faith, etc., and they turn them into leaders.” (Byrd, D., & Smith, M. (2010). Achievement, p. 10. Waco, TX. BCG Business)

This makes it clear that leadership isn’t limited to a specific group of people. Rather, the application of a clear, consistent program of training produces leaders of anyone willing to submit to the instruction. Therefore, to weed out negative tendencies, like the need to emphasize the “authority” we have as leaders, we need a program of training that produces leaders. Thankfully, there are many. Here are three of which I am personally aware:

Though each of the above have different requirements of entry, they all develop qualities in people essential to leadership. As mentioned, there are many other programs available. The key is to choose one and stick with it.

Combining power and legitimacy, along with the psychological acknowledgment of one’s right to exercise that power without explanation creates authority. True leaders don’t demand authority; they have it. By checking our actions and attitudes, we can either root out negative traits associated with the desire to emphasize our “authority” or avoid developing those traits altogether. By so doing, we avoid succumbing to this particular cause of leadership failure.

Have you ever felt the need to emphasize your “authority” to others? Have you noticed this trait in those around you? How did you handle the situation? Were you able to root out any negative traits associated with this undesirable quality? If so, how? Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments below.


One thought on “Causes of Leadership Failure – Emphasis of the “Authority” of Leadership

  1. Pingback: Causes of Leadership Failure – Emphasis of Title | Back-Office Bulletin

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