Problems with Authority
And the difference between bosses and leaders
“Cum potestas in populo auctoritas in senatu sit.” (While power resides in the people, authority rests with the Senate.) — Cicero
Some people have problems with authority.
You’ve seen it. Whether in relationships, work situations, or the government. They simply refuse to follow rules or adhere to norms, and while ignoring the aberration of their own behavior, belittle those who want to live harmoniously as “sheep.”
The term authority comes from the Latin auctoritas, meaning might, power, influence, clout; the general level of prestige or reputation a person held in Roman society.
To ignore authority is to ignore reputation and the associated respect that comes with attaining such a level of influence.
The difference lies in how one goes about obtaining such power: in other words, the power lies not only in the office, but in the office holder as well.
“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” — Abraham Lincoln
I recently binged The Sopranos on HBO Max. I first watched the show when it aired in the late ’90s and early 2000s, but realized partway through this session that I never made it past Season 4 (which would have been around the time my first child was born, so you can understand the shifting priorities).
Viewing this—some say the best—TV show some 20 years after its debut was eye-opening. The misogyny, racism, and brutality seem even more offensive, given how society has changed (or perhaps how I’ve changed?). The nuances popped more, the character flaws seemed more apparent.
Through the ups and downs of the seasons and characters, one thing remained constant: the respect for Tony as the boss. Whether it was demanded or expected, his troops showed him a combination of deference and loyalty, as defined by tradition.
Those who didn’t…well, let’s just say those who didn’t weren’t long for the organization.
Tony got respect in part because his position defined it, because he demanded it, but more importantly because his guys loved him. And in many cases, they weren’t ashamed to say it.
Leaders who can earn the love and admiration of their people see higher productivity and better execution. Their teams will fall over themselves to perform well and deliver results.
How can you get your people to be so loyal?
Entire books have been dedicated to decoding this, but it’s straightforward: give people respect and autonomy, making them feel like they have more power over their path than you.
You’ve heard the proverb “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”? This is the same concept.
Let me tell you a quick story that brings this to life.
Mad Man or Encouraging Man?
When I read Sloan Wilson’s bestseller The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — the precursor to Mad Men — I was struck with a marvelous scene that was a masterclass in giving feedback in a way that not only gave the employee a sense of what’s expected, but made him want to do it.
The book is set in the 1950s and the protagonist, Tom Rath, has returned from war and trying to settle in. He gets a job as special assistant to Ralph Hopkins, president of a TV network, who one day asked him write him a speech.
Tom put in a first effort, handing his draft to Bill Ogden, a consistently dour and curt middleman to Ralph Hopkins. He was the type who had to insert himself in order to prove his worth. After reading Rath’s first draft, Ogden's response was:
“Christ! This is awful! It isn’t what we want at all! You can do better than this!”
Not knowing exactly what Ogden meant, Rath didn’t make any changes before turning it in to Hopkins. The boss invited him in and gave him the following feedback:
“Marvelous. You’ve really got the feel for it! This really sings. The heart of the thing is just right! Now let’s just go over it together.”
At which point, Hopkins takes the entire speech apart, sentence by sentence before sending Rath on his way, saying,
“You certainly did a grand job! Just fix up the details we’ve worked out and let’s see it again in a few days.”
Rath was halfway to Grand Central Station before he fully realized that Ogden and Hopkins had simply told him the same thing in two different ways: to rewrite the speech.
But here’s the difference: Hopkins’ approach left Tom eager to try.
During the following week, Rath had to rewrite the speech four times, each time getting the same set of reactions. He was sure he would have quit in discouragement if it hadn’t been for Hopkins’ praise, which grew in warmth over each successive draft, but somehow never failed to sound sincere.
Words aside, the very demeanor of these two superiors made all the difference. Ogden seemed to be annoyed, as if Rath’s work was inconveniencing him. His curt attitude and abruptness exuded contempt.
Hopkins invited Tom to his apartment to review the speech over drinks. He was reassuring at every turn, even when delivering bad news. Rather than just critiquing the words, he boosted Rath’s self-confidence and complimented him in the process.
Tom Rath didn’t have a problem with authority; he had a problem with how his direct supervisor exercised authority.
And that makes all the difference between a boss and a leader.
Don’t miss the companion piece to this essay:
“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” — Dorothy Parker
Before asking someone if they will follow you, ask yourself first: Would you follow you? Are you a great follower? (Admired Leadership)
If you want others to follow you, you might consider your leadership battle cry. That is, say what you stand for and be sure you walk the talk. (Marshall Goldsmith)
Why do we work? Certainly it is to earn a living, but Simone Weil, a French philosopher and political activist, argued there are other purposes, Richard Gunderman explains Weil’s philosophy of work and her remarkable life that ended at the young age of 34: “good work enables us to be fully present, to be active creators rather than mere spectators, to develop the spiritual side of our natures, to gain insights into the larger purposes of our existence and to come more fully to life.” (Psyche)
“Remember the difference between a boss and a leader. A boss says, Go! A leader says, Let’s go!” — George E.M. Kelly
Last year, three cryptocurrency enthusiasts bought a cruise ship. They named it the Satoshi, and dreamed of starting a floating libertarian utopia, away from authorities on land. It didn’t work out. If you recall, Captain Nemo discovered this hard truth in 1872 in Jules Vernes classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (The Guardian)
Are floating cities a possibility? They’ve been attempted for decades, but no one has yet realized the vision, despite the effects of a changing climate. (Smithsonian Magazine)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was ahead of its time in addressing the perennial problem of work-life balance. And the real hero of the story might come as a surprise. (WBUR)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“No man has any natural authority over his fellow man.” —Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762
🎧 The Authority Project is a Livestream/Podcast digital marketing show that helps digital marketers, coaches, consultants & creators build authority in their niche. We talk to guests on each show who speak on how they've built authority in their businesses and how you can mimic their success. Learn how to develop authority, build your audience and attract better clients to your business.
📚 “So the final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that those who occupy positions of authority must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society. Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that. Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.” — John Barry in The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.