When Your Leader Expects Action Without Giving Authority

In an address to the House of Commons during the Second World War, Winston Churchill said, “I am your servant. You have the right to dismiss me when you please. What you have no right to do is ask me to bear responsibility without the power of action.” If you’ve led for very long, there’s probably a story somewhere in your journey of a leader who expected you to take action without giving you authority. This is a common experience, especially for young leaders.

So what causes this expectation for action without the authority to deliver? While the reasons may be many, I’ve observed two: a lack of trust or misaligned priorities.

When leaders can’t trust a team member, there will always be a pause in their willingness to delegate authority. Young leaders must often borrow authority, which means the leader lending it has to discern what kind of return on investment the delegated authority will bring. Ultimately, the results of delegate authority reflect on the one who lent it.

This lack of trust can result from character flaws, a previous breach in trust, or a gap in competency. Until trust is established to an appropriate level, there will always be tension between an expectation for results and the authority needed to deliver those results. Leaders and team members must remember that there is always a direct link between trust, character and opportunity.

Misaligned priorities also feed the “action without authority” dilemma. This issue arises when the leader’s expectations do not match the team member’s priorities. When this happens, the team member expends energy on activities that, in the leader’s mind, offer little value. They might be important to the individual, but are seen as a distraction or low-priority area to the leader.

When a team member’s priorities are not aligned with a leader’s expectations, the leader is rarely willing to delegate authority because they simply do not see the value in it. If a leader is going to lend authority, they want to make sure it’s going to advance the right initiatives.

One final thought–authority must ultimately be earned. John Maxwell captured this well when he noted, “When we first give authority to new leaders, we are actually giving them permission to have authority rather than giving them authority itself. True authority has to be earned.”

If you are wrestling to gain authority to move the ball down the field, ask yourself two questions. First, “Is there a deficit in my trustworthiness for the level of authority I’m requesting?” If so, what can you do to build trust? Are there smaller “actions” you can take that will build confidence in your leader? If you cannot use your current level of authority to take meaningful action, then why should you be entrusted with increased authority? Do something with what you’ve got to add value!

Second, “Am I investing time, energy, and focus on the priorities that are important to my leader?” If you’re not, is it because you are unclear about those priorities? Are those priorities outside of your gifts and passions? Or have you simply not taken the time to consider the value of these priorities and the impact they can have on the organization? Answering these questions can help you build trust, deliver results, and eventually earn authority.