Today, it seemed, was one of those days where I encountered a lot of authority. Or at least people who seemed to have power over me. Whether emails from our CEO, driving alongside a police car most of the way to the airport, sitting the airport parking shuttle waiting for the driver to decide when to leave, passing through security, clearing the US border, police patrolling the airport concourse, waiting for permission to board the flight and heeding the instructions of the flight attendants, all of them caught my attention.
That realization caused me to put some thought into my relationship with authority, and I realized that it is a complicated, multi-faceted concept. A reasonably long list of questions came to mind as I delved into that relationship more deeply, leading to these 7 insights into living with and without authority.
How absolute is the authority I am facing?
Using a scale of 1-10, absolute authority would be a 10 and would mean that the other party could do whatever they wanted to me without repercussion. A 1 would mean I could ignore them. All of that sounds rather life and death, and not much of my life runs at that level of intensity. So that led to the insight that the authority I perceive in others is relative. It varies largely in proportion to what I want in that particular situation. Take the US Border Patrol. I really wanted to get to my destination – it was important to me. So the officer’s authority felt pretty strong. I gave her the power she required over me in order for me to get what I want. I gave the police patrolling the concourse very little power. I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong and wouldn’t, so I in fact treated them as peers by engaging them in conversation.
How does the other party wield their authority?
This may come down to whether we perceive that the person is wielding their authority in a manner that is appropriate to the importance of the work they are doing. For example, when driving to an event you will often encounter parking attendants telling you where to park. In my mind this isn’t a situation that requires a lot of authority, but it does require some relationship skills. A smile and a bit of humour goes a long way towards me wanting to heed their needs. But grumpy and aggressive might not go over so well with me and I might find myself ‘ad libbing’ a bit on where I park.
How do I want the other party to wield their authority?
At first glance I want to say that the most important thing to me is that anyone with authority over me wield it in a benevolent manner. I want that power to be used in a kind and considerate manner. On further thought I think what I want to know most clearly from the other party is what power they believe they have and how they intend to use it. Without that I might feel as though I’m walking on eggshells and may not operate at my peak.
Of all of the situations I mentioned at the beginning, the one that struck me the most was driving beside the police cruiser, because it caused me to change my behavior. While I drive respectfully, I don’t always stick to the speed limit. I have my own ‘rules’ as to what is an acceptable speed to travel at, and I found myself checking my speedometer fairly regularly to make sure I was following the real rules. That’s because I know some police officers are okay with bending the rules while others are ‘by the book’. If only he had a sign on his bumper that said something like “drive reasonably and I’m good!”
How absolute is the authority I have?
Even thinking about this question makes me uncomfortable. If I have to worry about how big of a stick I am carrying, I obviously have more work to do in my relationships and my power of persuasion. The only role I know of right now that comes close to absolute authority is as a grandparent, and that is only to ensure that my granddaughter is kept safe. In any work circumstance where I have tried force my authority, hindsight would tell me that I could have gotten better results (and future support) trying a different approach.
How do I wield my authority?
I would like to think that I handle any position of authority I have in the same way I would like others to – with a humility, benevolence and transparency that makes it easier for others to stay engaged. That’s easier said than done. As I think about it there is so much that can get in the way of what I intend and what I actually display. Perhaps the best way to know more about this is to commit to constantly seeking feedback on well I live up to my intentions.
How comfortable am I leading without authority?
I’m really still learning what this means. For much of my career I’ve been in line management positions where my area of responsibility and associated authority was clear. I’m now out of a line role and in more of a consulting role, where at its clearest I am acting as a proxy for another leader and at its murkiest I’m working in uncharted territory trying to define new ways of doing things. What I’m learning is that it is about alignment with other leaders and communication. As the work I do isn’t always obvious to others because it is new territory, it is up to me to convey my ideas in an evocative and convincing manner to get people’s buy-in, and then I must constantly communicate to insure that the right people remain invested.
Does the authority rest in the person or in their role?
It is too easy to blur the line between person and role, whether or not we are the one with the authority. Take the example of the police patrolling the airport. They represent authority in their role, but does that mean we have to engage with them as an authority figure? In this example I chose to see him as a person in a police uniform and ended up having a good conversation about nothing in particular. I was able to see that the authority in his role was not applicable to me at the time and thus we were just two guys engaging in casual conversation. The flip side of this situation as that the officer in question saw things the same way … he could divorce himself from the authority associated with his role. Our conversation would have been very different if he was unable to do that.
What’s your experience in working with people in authority? Do you show up respectful but fully engaged? Or are you more deferential? How about when you have authority? What stance makes you most comfortable? What about when you are working without authority? How do you experience that?