Distinguishing leadership and authority

The scarcity of leadership from people in authority, makes it all the more critical to the adaptive successes of a polity that leadership be exercised by people without authority. These people – perceived as entrepreneurs and deviants, organisers and trouble makers – provide the capacity within the system to see through the blind spots of the dominant view point. Often they remain relatively unknown and sometimes they begin with no authority and eventually gain broad informal authority, as did Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Margaret Sanger. People such as these push us to clarify our values, face hard realities, and seize new possibilities, however frightening the change may be….

….Distinguishing leadership and authority is more than an analytic and strategic tool. It is also a means to describe the personal experience of leading. As we often experience it in real-time, leadership means taking responsibility for hard problems beyond anyone’s expectations. Ironically, many people wait until they gain authority, formal or informal, to begin leading. They see authority as a prerequisite. Yet those who do lead usually feel that they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have. How did leadership feel to Gandhi, Sanger and Richards, even after gaining informal authority from certain constituents? I suspect that they continued to experience leadership as an activity performed without authority, beyond expectations. They were not waiting for the coach’s call.

–          From ‘Leadership without Easy Answers’ by Ronald A. Heifetz

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