Authority and Leadership

The Difference Between Authority and Leadership

The ability to successfully influence the behaviour of others is entirely dependent on the source. Influence via authority may at first appear to be an obvious example, the influence it yields may not have the desired outcome. Conversely, influence affected by inspirational and self-modeled leadership is far more likely to result in the desired action being taken. While there can be overlap of these two concepts, it is important to remember that they are not mutually inclusive. Confusing one for the other may have damaging effects on team performance.


authority-1 The Difference Between Authority and LeadershipAuthority

In many workplaces, a person’s authority often stems from the title or position they hold within either their team or the organisation. This is often the case when there is a clear distinction between the person ‘in charge’ and the rest of the group. Managers and executives may use the power their title gives them to make and enforce decisions. While necessity sometimes calls for this, a manager who makes uncompromising demands of their team regularly may also find that performance diminishes or that there is high employee turnover.


Having authority over another group of people does not grant you dedication or respect from them on the basis of your title alone. Authority is merely the right to use the power your position allows you. It  can be a necessary tool in leadership and developing high performance. However, a reliance on authority over more influential leadership skills, will only alienate your team from their goals. Training for leadership excellence shows us how to overcome the mindset that authority is equal to leadership. 



Where authority is bestowed upon a person in a certain position of a hierarchy, leadership is a characteristic that can be found in people regardless of their position. Those with strong leadership qualities are often able to motivate and inspire others simply by setting the example for them to follow. When this kind of person also happens to be a manager, the result is often high performance teams. A manager or executive who asks for the support of their subordinates to implement decisions will have a greater chance of meeting collective goals than those who order tasks to be completed.

Leading high performance teams requires some relinquishing of authority to ensure that achievements are reached through a collaborative process. Building and sustaining leadership excellence means that leaders understand how to have a more impactful influence on team behaviours because they take the care to engage on a more personal level. Important challenges are solved with peer consultation and individuals are empowered to put strategies into action. 


leading-1 The Difference Between Authority and LeadershipFinding a Balance

People often confuse the terms authority and leadership because we have historically considered authority as a defining trait of leadership. However, attempting to influence behaviour through authority alone can be met with resistance and changes take longer to accept. 

Gaining the respect and trust of colleagues is understood by great leaders to be a privilege. By forming a personal relationship with their teams, leaders earn the authority their position provides. High performance training programs aim to develop trusting relationships within teams that lead to increased productivity. Leaders who use their positional power to support, coach, and further develop their teams will gain followers who chose to be led. While it is true that authority is a necessary aspect of managing a team or running an organisation, it is not always the most important.


As a leader, how do you overcome the limitations of authority?


About the Author: The Leadership Sphere
The Leadership Sphere helps small and medium businesses and larger organisations in Australia, in creating value through leadership. The Leadership Sphere provides a humanistic approach to the way it delivers leadership, performance and coaching services. We work with leaders and senior teams who need to gain increased clarity, build capability and ensure contribution at every level in the organisation, and enable a safe, inclusive and  high trust organisation.


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