A Blog by John Bossong

Great Leaders Know The Difference Between Power and Authority and Which One Gets Results

Chris was the only one left.  Every junior leader was gone.  His group was promising, so everyone thought.  Slowly, the power (authority) they thought they had never materialized.

Not one team that the group lead materialized.  No influence.  No momentum.  The top down approach never made an impact.

Chris had one option left.  He would reach out to his mentor, Kevin.  It was late, but Kevin opened the door.   Chris walked in and slowly explained his two-year journey and the failure.

He needed help.  He was taught nothing gets done or accomplished without power.   That was how he influenced people, power and a top-down approach.   It was his way or no-way.  No collaboration, no creativity, just do as you are told.

The mentor listened.  He understood.  He wanted to help.  Most mentors do.  The next two hours would change Chris’ approach to leadership.

It would be his choice.  Continue to lead with power or learn how to influence with authentic authority.


The Problem

Lord Acton states that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Chris’ problem was he didn’t know how to influence.   He was taught leadership was about power and position.

Having the ability to force or coerce someone to do your will, even if they would choose not to because of your position.

Right or wrong, that’s how it was modeled where he worked.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford Business School and author of Power:  How to Get It, Use It, and Keep It states that power comes from an ability to build your reputation, create efficient and effective networks of social relations, act and speak in ways that build influence, and from an ability to create and employ resources – things that others want and need.

Chris’ Dilema:  Power vs. Authority

This is the question Chris has to answer.  Does he “have” power and authority or do his followers “give” it to him?  Does he understand the difference between the two?

Most leaders are in a position of power.  However, the key is to develop the authority with the people you lead.  There is a huge difference!

James C. Hunter, author of The Servant states that authority is the skill of getting people to willingly do your will because of your personal influence.

Authority is about who you are as a person, your character, and the influence you’ve built with people.

You earn authority.  It doesn’t come because you have a title of leader.   Power had actually eroded Chris’ relationships.  Leaders accomplish things through building relationships not hammering a nail.

Hunter continues that it’s all about trust.  Without trust, it is difficult if not impossible to maintain a good relationship.

Chris was starting to understand, he didn’t have power.  It was up to his followers to “give” it to him.  To do that, he would have to earn it.

How To Earn Authority Through Influence

  1. Serve.  Great leaders serve others.  They take care of their needs.  They focus on solving problems and providing resources. Challenge yourself to serve others.
  2. Allow yourself to be influenced by others.  Great leaders allow themselves to be influenced by their followers.  They value their opinions and decisions.   High degrees of reciprocal influence between leaders and followers is healthy.
  3. Build healthy relationships.  Great leaders build healthy relationships with employees, customers, owners and suppliers.  It’s a simple principle that effective leaders understand.  The truly great leaders are skilled at building healthy relationships.
  4. Rational persuasion.  Utilize logical, factual evidence to influence others.  Don’t intimidate with fear and threaten.  This erodes authority and the relationship.
  5. Inspire.  Leaders tell great stories.  Make sure your people know the core values and history of the organization.  They need to know “why” what they do is important not just how.
  6. Be a role model.  Lead by example.  Nothing will have greater influence and strengthen your authority than living what you preach.  If you live humility and serve, everyone sees it.

The Solution

Chris left Kevin’s house with a new perspective on leadership.  He tried leading with positional power.  It wasn’t working.

He realized that authentic “power” didn’t come from his positional authority.  He had to earn authority through positively influencing his followers.

He would start tomorrow morning.

The staff meeting would change his leadership direction.  He would choose to lead and serve, not dictate.   Titles would be removed from business cards.

Do you have power or authority? 

How do you influence your team?

Is some level of power effective?   


  1. Very good list of how to earn authority.

    I normally hate sports analogies. But, there is one that I like. It relates to this core concept of leadership.

    A lineman has power to move people on the field. The stronger you are, the more power you have. The better position you give yourself to move others. Moving people with forced power.

    But give someone a whistle and little yellow flag, and they have authority to toss that lineman from the game. Authority has been given to him to move others. Moving people with granted authority.

    • Eric,

      That is awesome. I have never thought of that. What a great analogy. I love football, that makes so much sense regarding authority. Thanks for the great insight. Really nice advice. Take care,


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