The Difference Between Having Authority and Being a Leader

boys - one good friendI recently heard the CEO of a financial institution give a speech to college students.  He said, “In order to be a leader you need followers.”

I thought to myself, “I couldn’t disagree more.”

That statement continues to haunt me.

In order to be a leader you need followers.

One reason it bothers me is this….what does it say about a so-called leader that they look at those who they lead as “followers.”   It sounds like there is this elite group of “leaders” while the rest of us are sheep to be herded.

Here’s other reason that statement doesn’t sit well.   It implies that we live in a world full of followers.  Think about that.  It implies most of us are destined to be followers.   This explains some of these best-selling books:

Developing the Follower Within You

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:  A Followership Fable

Start with Why:  How Great Followers Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Follow

The One Minute Follower

Wait, what?   You haven’t heard of these books? Right. Because they don’t exist. No one would buy them.  Even though we are surrounded by people who outrank us, who are our bosses and managers, who have authority over us, we do not think of ourselves as followers.

Simon Sinek provided some keen insight into this phenomena in his TED talk Why Good Leaders Make Us Feel Safe.

Simon points out….

“There is a reason so many people have a visceral hatred, anger at some of the bank CEOS  – they allowed their people to be sacrificed so they could protect their own interests.  They violated the very definition of leadership.  They violated a deep-seated social contract.”

He went on to say….

“Leadership is a choice….it’s not a rank.   I know people who are at the seniormost positions in organizations who are absolutely not leaders.  They are authorities. And we do what they say because they have authority over us.  But we would not follow them. And I know many people who are at the bottoms of organizations who have no authority, and they are absolutely leaders.  This is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them.  This is what a leader is.”

I’ve been working on leadership training for young women.    One of the most powerful lessons I want them to learn is what Simon so perfectly summed up, “Leadership is a choice….it’s not a rank.” You don’t need to have power or even authority to be a leader.  Choose to look after the person on your right and your left.  Imagine the positive change if more “leaders” took this approach.

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