The Five Attributes of Authority

Published: Jan 24, 2019

Authority does come from title, but it is earned through actions. Inept executives fritter away their authority by their behavior, taking the counsel of none but themselves and failing to listen and learn from others.

Authority is what holds leadership promise together. With it, you can lead; without it, you might as well do something else.

Many leaders come to authority naturally; they embrace it totally and wield it like a sword to demonstrate their power. Others adopt it reluctantly, seemingly shirking from the responsibility. In truth, neither approach is wholly right nor wholly wrong. Leaders must embrace command, but they must recognize that their power stems from the people they lead.

There are five attributes of authority as it applies to leadership:

1. Decisiveness. Leaders need to exert their ideas. No Hamlets (“To be or not to be”) wanted. The ability to make tough decisions is crucial to a leader’s ability to lead. We remember General Dwight D. Eisenhower making the decision to launch a full frontal assault of the Normandy coast on D-Day. His final decision was short and to the point: “Okay, we’ll go.” But the decision was the culmination of years of military buildup of men and material as well as days of deliberation over weather conditions. By contrast, another former general, Alexander Haig, serving as secretary of state, jumped to a press podium in the White House on the day in March 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was shot and exclaimed, “I am in control here, in the White House.”

Bad move. The vice president, the speaker of the house, and president pro tempore of the Senate were very much alive and, according to the Constitution, ahead of him as potential successors. Rash decision making can be disastrous. You can take time to consider the options and deliberate the conditions and consequences, but ultimately you must pull the trigger on the decision.

2. Accomplishment. Leaders must, plain and simple, get things done. We want our leaders to do what they tell us they will do. When the CEO of a public company promises a new product or service as well as increased earnings and profits, he must deliver. Otherwise we tend to doubt his sincerity. Is he preening for the cameras? Is he angling for another job? Or is he clueless as to the real situation?

Some executives are notorious for blue-sky predictions about production and revenues. All too often the situation changes and they end up with egg on their faces. Contrast their dismal performance with that of executives who know how to mastermind a turnaround. Very often by working together with the existing employees, these executives can right the ship by reducing debt, cutting costs, and improving earnings. Getting things done is essential to authority; it is the raison d’etre of leadership.

3. Persuasiveness. Operating in a vacuum—or in a closed office—does not a leader make. No leader of an enterprise larger than a three-person operation can do much by himself. Sometimes autocratic executives will get into trouble because their heavy-handed management style turns people off. Then when the heat is on and they need the support of others, they will often find no one standing behind them.

All leaders need the cooperation and collaboration of others. Therefore, leaders must bring others to the cause; that’s a key measure of leader¬ship. Essential to that mantra is an ability to communi¬cate the objectives in ways that encourage people to buy into the process. You need to make the objective not only tangible but possible, as well as good for the enterprise. Some tasks are onerous—layoffs, closures, and termina¬tions—but if they are done for the good of the organiza¬tion, and ultimately the people in it, then they must be done. It is up to the leader to make the case.

4. Courage. Leaders must hold to the power of their beliefs and convictions, provided they are ethical, honest, and in keeping with organizational goals and beliefs. Standing up to bully bosses requires guts. Standing up to shareholders who want job cuts for short-term profits also takes guts. Standing up to public perceptions that seem reasonable but are unrealistic and uninformed also requires a measure of guts. Courage is essential to leadership.

We know well the stories of soldiers in the field who perform acts of heroism to save their buddies. What we do not know so well is the courage all soldiers display when they go out on dangerous missions day after day. Police officers and firefighters, too, put themselves in harm’s way regularly. Similarly, people in business demonstrate courage by blowing the whistle on illegalities or standing up for a fellow worker who is being harassed. Some even question the ideas of a senior leader. We do not celebrate courage enough in our corporate culture, but we should because it can be the backbone that individuals need to stand up for themselves and their beliefs. As Tadashi Kume, former executive of Honda Motor Company, once said, “I tell people that if the [company] president says a crow is white, you have to argue that a crow is really black.”

5. Inspiration. Ever look up in the sky at night and see the moon on a crisp, clear night and wonder what it was like up there? Mankind has been doing that for time immemorial. In 1969 that look skyward became reality for two astronauts who set foot on the moon. Ten more astronauts followed their steps in subsequent years. Their quest inspired a nation and along the way revolu¬tionized computer technology as well as many other things.

Entrepreneurial ventures have something of a moon-shot quality to them. These ventures, be it a new software company or a technology outfitter or a service provider, require a healthy dose of dreaming to succeed. People who work for those ventures feel jazzed when they come to work; they are inspired by doing something new, different, and beneficial for their customers and themselves. All of us want to belong to something greater than ourselves, and inspiration is essential.

Authority coupled with a sense of aspiration bonds people to the leader.
Decisiveness. Accomplishment. Persuasiveness. Courage. Inspiration. These attributes reinforce your authority to lead.

While authority is essential to leadership, it does not come automatically with rank or position. Authority, like trust, must be earned, but here’s the difference. Trust requires time to develop. Authority, especially in most hierarchies, is assumed. People will grant you permission to lead. They want you to lead; they want you to succeed. Why? Because your followers have a vested interest in the organization; your leadership is vital to their success. That said, authority can be lost. Before that happens, it is important to understand the nature of authority and how it develops.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from 12 Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to lead by John Baldoni. Copyright 2010, John Baldoni. Published by AMACOM.