I didn’t note who said that, and for a reason. Just look at the words. Makes sense right? Anyone could have said it and it would make sense. It so happens that the man who said it was General Douglas MacArthur, who led the Allied Forces in the Pacific Theater of World War II. This was a man who possessed and exercised a vast amount of authority. But anyone from a street-sweeper to a king could live well by those words and other similar words of wisdom.
Leadership vs. Authority
What is the difference between leadership and authority? History is full of notorious examples of those who abused and squandered their authority. But I am sure you can think of countless examples more close to home, the “Little Caesars” of the world that arbitrarily use whatever microscopic piece of authority they have to make their associates’ lives a little more difficult.
Then again, there are plenty of examples of those who earned their authority, whose position was well-justified, and who lived up to whatever title they were given. Similarly, you have benefited from countless people of goodwill holding relatively small positions, but who make others’ lives better every day.
There is nothing at all wrong with authority. It is necessary and has its value, but real leadership is more valuable and lasting than authority.
Leadership is Earned
If you follow someone as a leader, let us hope it is because you have some faith in their ability to make right decisions. You are putting some trust in them as a leader. As you see that trust well-placed, you will place even more trust in that person. A leader is constantly earning the trust of others.
Authority is Arbitrary
Anyone can be given authority. A title, a name-tag, a stripe on the sleeve mean nothing. Only what you do with it matters. Only when you demonstrate your fitness to bear that title does it hold meaning. When authority is given only by family name or race with no regard for personal accomplishment, we end up with disasters. I’m not just talking about kings and queens but daily HR in an average company.
Nothing has more arbitrary authority than the arts and humanities. Ever read a scathing review from an art or music critic? What gives this person any authority whatsoever? They have invented authority based on nothing but air. It’s completely arbitrary – not real.
Leadership Means People Choose to Listen
If you are a leader, people naturally listen to you and it doesn’t matter what status you hold. And if they can only see status and not a person, it is their problem. But a would-be leader will tend to stand out no matter where they end up. Andrew Carnegie was born in a tiny house with two families living in it, where the living room was also the dining room and the bedroom. Charlie Chaplin spent his childhood destitute. Awarded no particular status, they nonetheless rose to epic levels of success and respect in their individual fields.
Authority Means People Must Listen
If you’ve been given the authority, the people under you “have to listen to you” or get fired or whatever. Think about that at the next staff meeting. Whether they WANT to listen to you is an entirely different matter. If authority enables you to command their attention, it becomes your job to make something good come of it, to positively direct them toward a constructive objective.
Leadership Means Vision
Leading others often means you see what other people do not. And it is hard work guiding others if they don’t envision the destination. It becomes the leader’s problem to articulate and demonstrate where everyone’s supposed to be going. The vision is often the one thing that gets people through the toughest spots. The leader will be the one doing the envisioning and the motivating.
Authority is Narrow-Minded
Authority often gets so caught up in the rules and regulations that it loses sight of the vision altogether. I am sure you’ve seen this countless times when trying to deal with a bank or a government. They can possess massive resources and authority yet no vision or creativity whatsoever.
Leadership Speaks to the Individual
True leadership appeals to the best in all of us to cooperate and work with one another to achieve a common purpose. It tends to bypass people’s inclination for in-fighting and pettiness. People feel personally invested, like they are part of something important.
Authority Speaks to the Mob Mentality
Authority will have a tendency to speak to the lowest common-denominator, people’s fears and prejudices. It can rally people to action, but that action is not necessarily constructive. Indeed it can be very destructive. Too many people are inclined to blindly follow authority. And I’m not just talking pitchforks and torches; there are much subtler versions.
Leadership Assumes Responsibility
A leader assumes responsibility, not blame, and there is a difference. When individuals choose to follow a leader, they do so by choice. The leader looked in the mirror and decided it was his or her business. Then someone else did the same thing and so on. The leader isn’t going around accusing imaginary enemies. A true leader will have a tendency to take the high ground. People admire this quality and will support it.
Authority Blames Someone Else
Authority can have a serious propensity for fault-finding and finger-pointing, or it will just say “not my department.” Authority wants desperately to keep its position, so it will do what it can to deflect the blame to someone else. It’s not always that way, but often such patterns are built into a corporate machine or political system.
Of course when I speak of leadership I mean effective and positive leadership. And when I speak of authority I mean the arbitrary and mindless brand of authority that is all too commonplace. Anyone in a position of authority can step up and be a real leader – and many do. And those without “authority” can take a positive leadership role in their own family, company, neighborhood, community, and in the world at large. We need more leaders!