Heifetz on Leadership Without Authority

1. Leadership can be exercised from a position of no authority, formal or informal.  Since these people have no authority to shape the holding environment, they must make use of existing vessels.

2. There are benefits to leading without authority:

  • one has more latitude to raise disturbing questions, for creative deviance.
  • it permits one to focus singularly on one issue.
  • it allows one to have frontline information, to better understand details on the ground.

3. Distinguishing leadership and authority is a means to describe the personal experience of leading.  Many people wait until they gain authority to begin leading, seeing authority as a prerequisite.  Yet those who do lead usually feel they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have, experiencing leadership as an activity performed without authority, beyond expectations.

4. Because benefits and constraints differ, those who lead without authority adopt a different set of strategies and tactics:

  • one has little control over the holding environment – a leader without authority must regulate distress by modulating the provocation.
  • one must take into account one’s vulnerability of becoming a lightning rod for attacks.
  • one should resist the temptation of identifying the authority figure as the audience for action, rather, attention ought to be targeted towards the source of the authority.

5. A leader needs indicators of systemic distress.  A leader without authority typically lacks these indicators.  One is the behaviour of people in authority.

6. Leaders without authority must be sure of where to direct their challenge.  The challenge ought to mobilise the real stakeholders, rather than just the proxy (typically the leader acting on the stakeholders behalf).

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