The Leading Edge

Hal Lewis

Jewish leadership expert Dr. Hal M. Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute, on Judaism, leaders, and leadership.

The Leading Edge

Leadership and authority

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Political junkies will recall that in the midst of the recent sequestration controversy, President Obama took 12 Republican senators to dinner to discuss their differences. Almost without exception, every pundit and reporter, regardless of orientation, went out of his or her way to comment on the striking fact that, as a NY Times headline (March 5, 2013) put it, "Trying to Revive Talks, Obama Goes Around G.O.P. Leaders." Indeed, the common theme in most of the press was that circumnavigation of the extant leadership was the only way to break the logjam. 

Irrespective of politics, I must admit to being struck by a number of questions in this regard. To begin with, isn't it leadership's job to make things happen, to get things done? Why would one have to go around leaders in an effort to make the bold decisions necessary to serve the people who elected them? If others are capable of doing the job that the so-called leaders cannot, then who are the real leaders?

This entire episode embodies a dramatic example of how leadership and authority are easily conflated. Calling someone a leader because of their position or title is commonplace; we all do it. In his wonderful book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University notes, "In our everyday language, we often equate leadership with authority. We routinely call leaders those who achieve high positions of authority even though, on reflection, we readily acknowledge the frequent lack of leadership they provide…" 

When we use the term leader without regard to the abilities, skillsets, behaviors, ethics, or vision of the individual(s) in question, we come to expect that our "leaders" are unable to lead. Thus, when we need to get something difficult accomplished we seek out those who, according to conventional parlance, are not leaders. This is particularly ironic since the willingness to take risks, make difficult and even unpopular decisions, and put those they serve above party or ideology, is the quintessence of leadership.

One's ability to lead effectively can often be hampered by the very authority thought to lie at the heart of leadership. As Heifetz describes, "… the constraints of authority suggest that there may … be advantages to leading without it." Thus in analyzing the sequestration dinner, two questions arise: What is it about the "leadership" that prevented them from leading? And, what is it about the 12 dinner guests that enabled them to lead even though they were not considered part of the leadership?

Political scientists have long known that, to paraphrase journalist Farid Zakaria, you're a revolutionary  until you acquire power and then you become a conservative. That is to say, once in a position of responsibility (not the same as leadership!), individuals often find themselves hamstrung and unable to manifest the courage required for effective leadership.

Many people mistakenly conclude that their ability to lead is enhanced by the acquisition of titles or elevated placement on the organizational ladder. While that is sometimes the case, it is not always. Indeed, in many instances the more authority, the less leadership.  

As you reflect on your own work at the office, in the community, or elsewhere, consider how your ability to lead effectively is both enhanced and impeded by your rank or position. Let me know what you think.


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