Start Authorizing Yourself to Lead

Excerpted from When Everyone Leads by Ed O’Malley and Julia Fabris McBride, published by Bard Press. Copyright © 2023 Kansas Leadership Center.

Whether you are a CEO, middle manager, mayor, governor, front-line employee, independent contributor, community member, or someone similar, authorizing yourself to exercise leadership means deciding to do something above and beyond what’s expected.

           This chapter explores what that self-authorization looks like, how to do it, what makes it hard, and why it’s necessary.

            Our organizations, communities, and companies are held together by formal and informal hierarchies. Some of these are visible. We can see the org chart in the company. We can visit the city’s website and see who serves on the city council. Some are invisible. The middle manager who has been around for 20 years and has developed deep relationships up, down, and across the company likely holds as much or more power than the new member of the executive team.

            Here’s a way of thinking about it. What’s expected of you is in the circle. These might be formal expectations, like from a job description, or informal expectations, based on norms for people in your position. In the circle are the things you’ve been authorized to do.

            Exercising leadership takes you outside the circle, outside of what’s expected or what’s been authorized. Here’s what that looks like in real life:

  • A student is expected to go to class, do homework, and follow the rules. Those things are inside the circle. When a student challenges the dress code, believing it treats some students and their cultural norms unfairly, she is outside the circle. She had to authorize herself to get there. No one was going to authorize her to intervene like that.
  • An elected member of parliament is expected to toe the party line, give speeches using the party’s talking points, vote with party members, and raise money for the party. Those things are inside the circle. When that member of parliament works with the opposition on a compromise bill, believing it’s necessary for progress, they are outside the circle. They had to authorize themselves to get there. Those who authorized them (the loyal party voters who put them in office) aren’t going to want them to intervene like that.
  • After just a few months on the board of a mid-sized nonprofit, a new board member understands the board is expected to fundraise and do little else. Board members don’t get involved with strategy or programs. At a board meeting, all heads turn when he asks, “What data shows this initiative is helping achieve our mission?” After a stunned silence other board members admit they have doubts about the program’s impact. Asking provocative questions wasn’t part of his stated responsibilities. No one was going to encourage him. He had to authorize himself.

You Have to Authorize Yourself

Leadership is a self-authorizing activity. No one else can authorize you to lead. Other people can tell you they want you to lead. They can put you in what they call a “leadership position” (what we call an authority position). But only you can make the intentional decision to try to exercise leadership.

            The idea that leadership must be self-authorized is easier to grasp when you separate leadership from position and understand that leadership is an activity. Like any action, behavior, or activity, the person doing it needs to decide to do it. For instance,

  • A new employee realizes leadership for her looks like intervening to help focus discussion. She decides it’s up to her to ask the tough question in the staff meeting to get everyone focused on the elephant in the room.
  • A long-time manager of a department realizes leadership for him looks like not answering every question from his staff. Instead, he holds back answers and asks them for ideas, creating space for his employees to discover solutions, many of which turn out better than his own. (We call this “giving the work back” and you can read more about it in Your Leadership Edge.)
  • A community member, frustrated by unhealthy levels of polarization in the city, realizes leadership for them looks like modeling the kind of communication they want to see more of. They decide to invite community members with opposing views to conversations in which they get to know one another and search for common ground.
  • The CEO of a regional Habitat for Humanity realizes that decision makers and big funders in her mid-sized city have little understanding of the impact of the 1940s-era government policies (known as redlining) on today’s Black families; these policies kept their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents from getting home loans. She starts inviting influencers to casual but provocative one-on-one tours of city neighborhoods.

            Rarely do we lead by accident. It’s almost always a conscious choice. It starts with deciding that not only can you lead, but to make progress, you must lead. You have to do your part.

            Here are four reasons we fail to authorize ourselves to lead:

  • We worry we’ll do something wrong and suffer consequences. You might ask a provocative question but then get chastised for putting others on the spot. It can feel safer to sit on the sidelines and leave the tough work of leading to others.
  • The dominant view of leadership as a position keeps us stuck. Everyone else is looking to authority to solve the problems and lead the way. We realize, consciously or subconsciously, that authorizing ourselves to lead, especially if we don’t have authority, runs against the norm. Whether we admit it or not, most of us like to do what’s expected.
  • We already have too much on our minds! Being someone who exercises leadership means your mind is focused beyond what’s expected of you. You have to be more alert and consider more perspectives. In the end your heightened curiosity will make progress on your challenge easier, faster, and more successful. But in the moment it may be simpler to keep your head down, and focus on what’s already on your plate.
  • We miss the moments to lead. If you can’t see the moment to lead it will be really hard to authorize yourself to do so.

What Happens When You Authorize Yourself to Lead

When you authorize yourself to lead, the benefits are personal and immediate:

  • You feel more engaged in your work, more satisfied and empowered. Our research shows that employees who authorize themselves to lead, regardless of their job titles, are more committed to their organizations, more hopeful about their organizations’ futures, and more satisfied with their jobs.
  • You no longer wait for permission to make things better. You initiate change rather than wait to be told to do so by someone higher up. You ask difficult but important questions of peers and higher-ups.
  • You empower yourself to make a difference everywhere you go. The idea that leadership is an activity has no boundaries. What you practice at work or as a community volunteer makes you a better friend, parent, niece, or neighbor.
  • You become part of the solution. There is no doubt that your organization or community is dealing with multiple challenges. When those challenges are adaptive, authority is not enough. The people in the top jobs can’t fix what really matters all by themselves, nor can they get to the core of what needs to change without input from you. Clear direction and good management are not enough to bridge the gap. You have a part to play in whatever happens next.

            We also know from our research that when companies and organizations employ a critical mass of people who authorize themselves to lead, they create cultures that value listening, open communication, and collaboration. So although a personal sense of meaning and engagement is terrific, the most important thing you do when you authorize yourself to exercise more leadership is contribute to a culture that is more effective at tackling its toughest problems.

            If only a few people in your system see it as their responsibility to exercise leadership, nothing important gets appreciably better. You’ll maintain the current (unsatisfying) rate of progress on your adaptive challenges. Your organization will reach uncommon levels of success, however, when more people authorize themselves to exercise leadership on your most important challenge.