In any kind of leadership, you will soon discover how sensitive some people are around authority. One CEO, for example, reported getting feedback that he was too dictatorial. Even though he was right most of the time, his people felt stifled by his brilliance. Another tried so hard to be gentle around this issue that no one knew who was in charge of what, and people resorted to underhanded ways of wielding authority, creating a different kind of toxic culture. In this blog post, we will explore the surprising root of the authority issue and suggest two ways to use it to support people’s self emergence.

To understand authority, you will want to understand loyalty. As has been well documented, you will see time and again that the people most vociferous in their aversion authority have a remarkably loyal nature. The suspicion of power and governance protects a deep desire to be open and committed to something higher. It is called the alpha instinct. The natural instinct to serve and to lead, to admire and be admired. At national, corporate and family levels, it is a truly potent force.

Clear About How Decisions Are Made
The bigger part of a leader’s job is not so much to make decisions as it is to make it super clear how decisions get made, who has what authority. Nothing is more disempowering than to believe a matter was your responsibility, only to discover your boss or some committee really had that power all along. There are four ways to make healthy decisions: decide-and-announce, consult-before-decide, delegate-and-abide and full-consensus. Each has its place. In future posts, we will delve deeper into the skillful use of each of these. For now, the point is to be explicit. Some topics you do need to decide on your own… great. Make sure people know. If you are asking the group to decide, make sure they know. If you are not using the full range, think about becoming more facile with those methods you use less.

I recommend expanding each person’s job description into an authority map. This is a document with a dozen or more rows detailing each facet this person is responsible for, and four columns to indicate levels of authority: (1) Act Only With Approval, (2) Inform Before Acting, (3) Act and Report, and (4) Full Authority. For each row there is a checkmark in one of these four columns. The idea is that, at each performance review as the person becomes grows in their effectiveness, you are able to move some checkmarks to right. People grow fastest when they have just enough authority to stretch their capacity.

Let The Projections Evolve
Issues around authority involve projection. The feeling of respect (or disdain) for leadership—the alpha instinct—works by creating an ideal, an impression of what worthy leadership looks like. As a leader, you are constantly getting compared with that ideal. Typically, early on, there is some testing happening. If you are lucky, for a while anyway, you pass muster and the person’s instinctual loyalty is activated. Your leadership is, in some way at least, respected. Unconsciously perhaps, hopes are pinned. People project their ideal onto you. Eventually, the hero feeling tarnishes and more often than not shatters in some small or large sense of betrayal, where you become villain. This is normal. That is how we grow: I see greatness as outside of me, then, as that projection dissolves, I claim it as who I am.

As a leadership practice, learn to perceive the projections of others. At every performance review, for example, note how you perceive you look to your people. On the spectrum from hero to villain, where are you? Is any sense of betrayal creeping in yet? Do not attempt to adjust another person’s projection on you. No need to avoid or to feed being their hero (or villain). Just notice. It will evolve all by itself. The only input from you is support, in particular by letting them know how you see his or her challenges as normal, and their potential as great.

There is only one way I know to become skilled in allowing and evolving people’s sensitivities and projections around authority. That is to use oneself as the case study. Pay attention to your own desire to be loyal to something higher and the suspicions, admirations and vilifications it evokes. As we become more aware in navigating this powerful force, the culture we create together evolves, and, as part of that, we will find it easier to lead and to find leaders who are genuinely worthy of our loyalty.