Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Leadership Comes From Personal Power, Not Authority

“Now tell me, what does it mean to be noble? Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don't follow titles, they follow courage. Now our people know you. Noble, and common, they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they'd follow you. And so would I.” – Mel Gibson as “William Wallace” in the movie Braveheart.

It was a very powerful moment in the movie. A discussion between Sir Robert the Bruce, the nobleman with titles and authority, and William Wallace, a common man with no title, but who carried enormous personal power. As a result of that personal power, it was the commoner who commanded the allegiance of his countrymen, rather than the nobleman. William Wallace, the farmer, did far more to demonstrate courage and commitment and leadership than did Sir Robert. And so the followers stood behind William Wallace.

There are many examples of this sort of reality everywhere. I’ve observed it many times in corporate America, where the junior manager commanded more respect and trust than did the senior executive. People would rather follow someone they trust rather than someone they didn’t trust, even if they carried a high rank. Someone with rank or title might not actually have the “leadership capital” to actually lead people. Leadership capital is the ongoing scorecard that we keep on each other. We may not think about it consciously, or even acknowledge that the scorecard exists. But regardless, we all keep it on one another. It’s the scorecard that answers the questions: “Is that person trustworthy? How well do I trust them? Do I trust them well enough to follow their lead?” It’s the leadership capital that gives someone an influence that can far exceed the influence from authority.

There are two main elements on the leadership capital scorecard: character and capabilities. These are what we care about when contemplating the individual. Leadership capital is built first by your integrity. It begins with honesty, fairness, and how well your words are supported by your actions. Your actions must be very closely connected to your words. This is true whether on the corporate ladder, the baseball field, or the field of battle. This is what we mean when we refer to “authentic” leadership. After a time, those around you will take notice that you are trustworthy, and they begin to follow your lead. It won’t matter if they report to you, or to someone else. They may not even work for the same company. They might be a friend or business acquaintance. When you speak, they will listen, and they will follow your lead.

Leadership capital is a precious asset, and can be lost very quickly. We all know well enough that trust takes weeks or months to build, but can be lost in a day from a single incident. Once you have that leadership capital, keeping it means always staying the course of integrity, open communication, and commitment to others. When people begin following you, they will expect your support, and rightfully so. They will have an expectation of learning from you, and it’s the leader’s responsibility to come through. Peter Drucker told us “rank does not confer privilege nor power. It imposes responsibility.” All leaders have a responsibility to those that follow them. Leaders have an obligation to motivate and inspire as they lead. They have a responsibility to support, develop and mentor others. Leaders have the responsibility of developing other leaders. I sometimes call it a “psychological contract”, which is both more delicate and at the same time more powerful than a written contract. In the contract, there is a shared mutual commitment in the pursuit of shared goals. The contract silently stipulates that leadership is built around cooperation, rather than coercion.

The finest leaders will never use their authority or rank. They have all the influence they need by virtue of their leadership capital. These leaders will have created a strong team culture with mentalities of trust and cooperation. The team is well motivated, and they are clear on the goals, and committed to the vision. Rank, title, and authority all become irrelevant, because leaders engage others and earn their followers.



  1. Very effective post. Enjoyed reading it; agree with it as well.

    Effective, productive leadership is always tied to the relationships built as its foundation.

    One of the first things new managers often learn, is that power by virtue of position (positional authority), is actually very small.

  2. Great perspective on leadership! Too often we experience appointed leaders who feel it is their right to be respected simply because of their position. Consequently, their behavior exemplifies this attitude which alienates others. To gain respect you must first give respect. This approach requires the leader to be humbled by their responsibility.