Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Formal Authority

I was recently told by a newly promoted IT leader, "I have a great new job with more responsibility but lacking more authority"

My response - none of us really have authority or if we do, we seldom use it.

In thinking about my own leadership life over the past week, I've had to make numerous decisions based on incomplete and contradictory information from stakeholders.

If I said something like "I'm the CIO and a Senior Vice President. Since I hold the top technology job, I have authority over all technology decisions and by command we will do X", my stakeholders would lose all respect for me.

In each case this week, I was handed complex issues with "he said/she said" controversy. It would have been easy to resolve the issues with a simple "formal authority" email to remove the issue from my queue. And my decisions would have been completely wrong.

Although listening to each side of the story takes time, it's the only way to understand the nuances and technical complexity to make a sound decision. Email is not a good way to resolve controversy.

First, I identified the stakeholders on each side of each issue and called them. After listening to their input, I outlined a governance process with objective criteria to evaluate the options. The stakeholders agreed to the process, the criteria, and the authority of a governance workgroup to make a decision.

Then, we set up meetings or phone calls where all the stakeholders could speak with each other, make their points, and come to consensus. If consensus could not be achieved, then a vote would be taken. If the vote was a tie, I would decide based on pros/cons assigned to the objective criteria.

Using this approach, we've brought most of the issues of the past week to closure and I've not had to use formal authority.

One consequence of this approach is that it does not create passionate winners and losers. It does not make the CIO the bad guy. When the next issue arises, stakeholders will trust the process and not even remember the controversies of the past.

When I was young, I believed that leaders had it easy - they had such power that they could just exercise their authority to make decisions and get work done.

The reality is that the more responsibility and visibility you have, the less formal authority you can exercise.

So next time you get promoted, accept the mantle of leadership knowing that you're accountable, but your only true power is leveraging the trust of your stakeholders.


Michelle W said...

The servant leader can be a thankless, tiresome position, but really is the best way to get things done. Thanks for the good example.

Deborah said...

"The mantle of leadership promotes accountability, but the only true power is leveraging the trust of your stakeholders."

Thank you for sharing your sincere thoughts and insight, John. As a former IT Exec, I often used the following philosophical story to describe my leadership and coaching desires to my staff.

"I remove the boulders, so that others can clear the path of rocks. This leaves only pebbles to clear the path to success."


Medical Quack said...

As usual great words of wisdom and I think you are by far the best representation in healthcare of "Creative Technologist" thinking we could hope for with always keeping "hands on" experience and collaboration in the forefront of everything you do and say:)

Anonymous said...

When I was in Business School one of my professors said..."management means making decisions with incomplete information" your process is a good way to receive more complete information.

Michael Edward Kohlman said...

Great Post John,

One of the things that I have attempted to pass on to others over my career is that most of Leadership is that Listening, Evangelism, and Inclusion are three of the greatest skills that anyone that wishes to Lead (and not just manage) can learn. Dictating or Mandating a choice from a position of Authority can be done of course, but it almost always results in friction, hurt feelings, passive aggressive behavior and if done too often, open dissension and turnover.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Certainly this investment in your people and the process has long term gains.

I'm curious how often these issues must come to a vote, and when they do, to they fall along "standard party" lines?

Chris said...

In situations like this, I'm always reminded of Hannibal's first law of leadership: Don't give an order that won't be obeyed.

Formal authority is an illusion so long as people have the ability to leave the firm. The approach you outline is far more likely to be sustainable.