The Golden Key RMIT chapter (a collegiate honour society that invites the top 15% of college and university sophomores, juniors and seniors, as well as top-performing graduate students) asked me to explore “leading without authority” with their students and a panel of experienced leaders: Dr Wendy Harding, CEO of the National Institute of Organisational Dynamics Australia; Professor Ron Wakefield, Dean, School of Property, Construction and Project Management at RMIT University; and Gary Novak, Partner at KPMG. It’s an important concept if you are new to an organisation or do not have positional authority – that is, authority by virtue of your job title or where you are in the hierarchy.

It’s actually just as important for leaders with positional authority. When we say we want people with real leadership skills, we mean people who can lead without relying on positional authority. People follow these leaders willingly, not because of their role title. That’s real leadership.

There are times when we still need authority, such as in emergencies where quick decisions are critical and when expertise or single point of decision-making is more important than collective problem solving. For example, you wouldn’t want different directions from three airline staff during an emergency. However, in this interconnected world where problems are increasingly complex, relying on authority is becoming less effective.

Here are five reasons why we need leadership without authority:

1: Flatter hierarchies in most organisations

Senior leaders still have power, but people challenge them. And often they should. Others may not challenge directly but undermine the direction set by senior leaders with passive resistance. Younger generations don’t always follow just because you tell them to. Many younger people are taught at school and university to think for themselves and may only follow if it makes sense or speaks to their hearts.

2: Enables more people to step into leadership roles

When we believe that one can lead without authority, it frees people to lead without feeling like they need authority, a title or permission. In organisations, that means more people taking initiative and assuming accountability, and more senior leaders creating the space for new leaders to emerge. 

As Robin Sharma, author of The Leader who had no Title, says ‘Leadership is not about your title. It is about your behaviour.’ Dr Wendy Harding said that we need leadership without authority in our complex world because we cannot rely on the few senior people in organisations to know what is happening. 

3: Increase the quality of leadership

When people cannot use authority to coerce others to follow, people actually have to use their leadership behaviour to earn respect so that people choose to follow. When people follow willingly, not out of fear, they voluntarily contribute their best efforts. People are inspired to perform their best, not driven to perform. 

“If I have to use positional authority to get someone to do something,” said Professor Ron Wakefield, “I have failed in my leadership somewhere.”

Randall Beck and James Harter refer to Gallup studies in their HBR article, Why Good Managers Are So Rare that companies fail to choose candidates with the right talent for the job 82% of the time, and bad managers cost businesses billions of dollars each year. Quality of leadership is no small issue.

4: Expand what criteria we look for when appointing leaders

People willingly follow leaders who are authentic, humble, who listen and are purpose-driven. If we focused on people who can lead without authority, we’d notice many demonstrate leadership qualities that people actually appreciate. 

Gary Novak values people who demonstrate leadership, regardless of positional title or rank in the organisation. They are people who are proactive, for example, who put their hands up to lead or contribute to a project.

5: Reduces the chances of misuse of power

The misuse of power we have seen over and over again – including abusing of corporate or public funds, misleading customers and shareholders, underpaying staff, invading privacy, abusing the environment, creating toxic cultures, bullying and harassment – have largely stemmed from the greed and self-interest of people with positional authority and power. By appointing people with qualities such as authenticity, humility, listening and being purpose-driven into leadership positions, they are less likely to use positional authority for their own benefit. 

If you have been following the Quietly Powerful movement, you may see how Quietly Powerful Leaders often lead without authority. People follow Quietly Powerful leaders because they believe in what they are trying to achieve and they are given the space and support to contribute meaningfully. Do you think we need more leadership capabilities that do not depend on authority?

Related articles:

7 reasons why we need more Quietly Powerful Leaders now, more than ever
Are you a leader that brings out the best from a mix of different people?
The definition of what good leadership looks like needs an update