Manners: Personal v. Positional Authority

This is actually based on a conversation I had with a colleague, but it is something that flits through my life very regularly.  Some of this is because I have never been the person to naturally accrue either one.  There are people who do (I have known some of them for years and watched, it’s like a damn magnet of influence flows at them). I build it brick by brick, deliberate actions and choices to create the loyalty which seems to easy for others.

Ok, to sound less creepy about it, think of that person who you know that you don’t know why people like them. I mean that person who everyone likes and admires despite being coarse or aggressive or blunt – or a combination of all three. They just have charisma (so jealous). They build up authority based purely on their personality. People follow them without knowing why or caring.

Then you have people who rise to positions of power – for good or ill. The boss who bullies everyone has positional authority (and power) but not the respect or love of the employees (personal power or authority). Without personal authority they can command actions, but they can’t inspire others – people do what they are “forced” to do and slink away. It is a far less effective form of authority on it’s own.

The best leaders end up with both. Great leaders have tons of personal authority and just seem to gather a wake of devoted followers. They rise into positions which grant them greater authority and that visibility usually increases their personal influence as well. It’s really disgusting in a lot of ways.

I don’t garner personal authority naturally. One way to garner personal authority is to step up when positional authority doesn’t exist (i.e. among friends) or when positional authority has failed. As much as I would like to be a leader sometimes, I like to step back to think things through before I make decisions. While I do that, someone else tends to step forward and then they are the leader. Damn my thinkiness instead of actiness. Even if they make a shitton of mistakes my thinking wouldn’t have made – they are now the defacto leader because they stepped up.

I’ve watched it happen my whole life. There are several people who have I have seen be terrible leaders, but people keep following them because they step up first – and even with a history of screwing up and terrible ideas that “first” motion makes them leader. With some groups, I can make the plea “hey guys, what about XYZ” and they will listen, but with other groups “nope, JoeSchmoe is already leader.”

And I have tried just jumping in, but there is a trick to the stumble that I don’t understand either. Somehow those “natural charisma” people handle the fuck-ups better than I do too. Like somehow the terrible decision makes them brighter, it just makes me want to curl in a corner and rock back and forth muttering to myself. The strongest natural leaders I know can lead people into a total disaster and basically make everyone feel like (a) they did it on purpose and (b) it was worth applauding like it was tumbler’s trick. They raise their hands above their head, take a sweeping bow and we cheer for them. We cheer their abject failures!

I don’t understand it. I watch it.  I cheer. And I don’t get it. I have stood their and had a little voice in my head jumping up and down going “why are you happy, this was a failure. YOU failed because you weren’t leading and they failed everyone. Why are you telling them good job? Happy day? What’s wrongwithyou?” I have no response for this voice. There is some kind of conditioning or magnetism that some people can just pull that positive response out.

All that said, personal authority when it isn’t natural can still be gained. I work diligently at my job to garner personal authority.  I have three tools that I know I use:

  1. Introduce yourself. To me, this was the weirdest advice I was ever given. It feels unnatural to randomly introduce myself to people. It is part of the reason I really like working with all the new hires. They all learn my name, voice/face very early. I combine this with the positional authority of “trainer” and add that I don’t believe in dumb questions (people do want/need to hear this from you). When I  encourage questions and answer them -even with “I don’t know that, I’ll find out”…
  2. Admit your gaps. I’ve found there is enormous power and respect that is built when someone admits their own weak points.
  3. Be the authority. Don’t brag about your knowledge, just use it. Offer it up as a gift when it fits. Don’t try to wriggle it into any old space, but when you see that triangle-shaped space you offer the pyramid that is your knowledge. Over time people will come to you on that subject. When they do find your gaps, move to step 4:
  4. Know the sources. “I don’t know all the answers, but I know who does” is one of my most powerful catch-phrases at work. Instead of trying to know everything – I try to know everyone and what their strengths are. Oh, you need to know X about our product, talk to Jane. You need an answer on a billing question, talk to Tom in accounting. You need an obscure trivia about company history, Bob has been here over 30 years- he might know. I don’t need all the information in my own head to build authority. People will come to me first, even when they know I don’t know what they need – because I will give them one name or two. Instead of going to four or six different guesses, they come to me. This takes a lot of time to build up, but it does happen over time.

Positional authority is something that is (in my opinion) more “given” or “earned” because it is things like a title.  The differences between “Manager” and “Director” and “Vice President” – those are in some ways easier and harder to obtain.

Positional authority comes with a title. Personal authority comes with people.


2 thoughts on “Manners: Personal v. Positional Authority”


    I have a fifth way to garner authority, that is kind of a #4 part II”
    Lift People Up – when someone is the best widget maker, make a point to remember it, and when another person needs widgets, recommend Person #1. This works best with the skills people are themselves most proud/happy/comfortable using. E.G. I would recommend YOU to anyone looking for a good trainer or a creative writer.

    When you make a point to give away power – explicitly, and thoughtfully – it seems to flow back at you.


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