Ronald Heifetz* on leadership – Part II: the difference between power, authority and leadership

Leadership is often defined as social influence. That makes leadership trivial and instrumental: people using their influence to reach group goals. At the same time we all associate leadership with ‘making the difference’, ‘realizing breakthroughs’, ‘transformation’. Heifetz shows the way out of this confusion by differentiating authority, leadership and power.

Authority is the conferred power to perform a service. It is given and can be taken away. It is part of an exchange. Authority relationships are to a certain extent conscious and voluntary. Unlike dominance relationships that are based on coercion or deference. Authority provides direction, protection and order. Authority is a must in each social organisation. It can be observed in human team work, at children play grounds and within gorilla bands. Authority can be formal or informal.

The power to influence is the resource for authority and for leadership. Power can also be informal or formal. The formal power comes with the position. Even informal leaders as Gandhi or King had formal positions and power linked to their position. Informal power comes from personal attributes, as also informal authority. Informal authority and power are a must to gain formal power and authority.

These definitions are not futile. They make clear that authority and leadership don’t go hand in hand. Authority is given to provide order, direction and protection. Not to create distress, challenge the status quo and change the value patterns.  Authority risks to lose its legitimacy if it shows leadership.  That explains why it’s so hard for e.g. politicians or corporate managers to ‘lead’. How to provide order and at the same time bring the people in distress? It’s possible. Great presidents and CEO’s have shown how.

Secondly: leadership is not merely the informal side of authority or power. Leadership is not neutral, as authority isn’t either. Leadership is closely linked to purpose, to the ‘why’. The critical differentiator is: “Does making progress on this problem require changes in people’s values, attitudes, or habits of behavior?” If yes, leadership is needed. If no, authority can do. Both need power. Formally or informally.

Any comment?

* Heifetz, Ronald (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge: Harvard Business Press, 348 p.


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in 12. Trust, power & authority, 19 leadership thoughts, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ronald Heifetz* on leadership – Part II: the difference between power, authority and leadership

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