Authority is often defined in relation to an established hierarchy, but rigid adherence to such a formal understanding can limit an organization’s potential for innovation and progress. No matter the title attached to your name, you are always in a position to make your voice heard and win over others over to your way of thinking. Recently, Patrick Malone, Executive in Residence for the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University, hosted a NextGen Leadership Program event focused on the topic.
“As we begin our careers,” said Malone, “we often find we don’t have the ‘authority’ to get things done.” To address this misconception, Malone shared some advice on reinterpreting authority in a way that empowers employees regardless of their station.
Leading is About Relationships
Malone differentiates between leading and coercing, with the first based on relationship-building and the second based more on legal or situational authority. Merely having the standing to delegate tasks does not make a leader; anyone can exert influence and gain support by forming meaningful connections with the people around them. Knowing how to build and maintain these relationships can mean the difference between being a passable leader and an inspiring one, and it can also be a vital skill for those looking to lead without the benefits afforded by a high-ranking position.
Reciprocity is Key
“People will feel obliged to give something back if they feel they’ve gotten something first,” says Malone, emphasizing the importance of service as a part of exercising authority. If you always ask things of others but never give anything in return, you’re unlikely to establish the sort of connection that will make people want to help you. This is also a way in which those without formal authority can still possess it in an informal manner—by helping someone out, you are laying the groundwork for them to help you in the future.
Credibility is a Form of Authority
“Authority matters in influence because people want credibility,” say Malone. Here, he doesn’t mean authority in the hierarchical sense, but rather expertise, specific knowledge or experience. This is an important piece of advice for those at the beginning of their careers or just starting a new job — a simple way to make yourself stand out and to gain influence is to “find what it is that you can do that you want to be the expert in.” As your coworkers come to rely on you and respect your abilities, you’ll find that, regardless of position, you are seen as an influential employee.
These three key points laid out by Malone present a picture of authority and influence as fluid attributes that can be intentionally cultivated. Regardless of one’s official title, a focus on relationship building and personal development can enable any employee to be a leader within their organization.