I tend to make a major distinction between those people in an organization who influence change without authority – change agents – and those who influence change with authority – leaders.
And, when I coach change agents, much of our time is focused on influencing leaders to do what they need to do to support the change initiative. Essentially, to get leaders to use their authority on behalf of the change initiative.
It’s not that leaders, managers, supervisors, or anyone with authority has gained magical abilities to get people to change just by virtue of their title and position. Anyone who has been a manager for more than a week can tell you that’s not how it works.
In fact, when it comes to influencing change, the problem with authority is the tendency to rely on it to get things done. Telling people to change just because you’re the boss isn’t going to win people over to the cause or result in lasting change.
Instead, when used properly, authority is an enabler of change, not a strong-arm. It turns out that what someone does with authority is more important than using it directly.
Authority is an interesting phenomenon. We tend to defer to those who have it. And in exchange for that power, leaders gain more scrutiny and judgment by those who have less authority. And scrutiny, authority’s constant companion, is where the true leverage point is. To earn the power to lead us, leaders must prove they are aligned with the vision and consistent in execution. Only leaders who live up to the scrutiny that comes with authority can effectively support change.
Leaders have the power to drive change, by making decisions within their authority, by holding others accountable, by communicating the vision and expectations, and by delegating responsibility. But to be given that power, they also have the responsibility to live up to the scrutiny of those who are watching for proof they can be trusted with it. They do that in part by ensuring alignment of decisions across the organization, by role modeling, by ensuring consistency of words and deeds over time, and by empowering others.
Yes, authority allows those who have it to do things that those without it can’t. But leaders often don’t hold themselves to the same standard as those who are watching. And it’s whether or not leaders can pass the test of others that really matters. That is why it is so important for change agents to provide feedback so leaders can see what they can do to better support the change with their authority.