Authority and Responsibility


Congratulations on your promotion! You’re now a manager or leader for your team. You now have to make sure everyone is getting their things done. That also means lots of reports and meetings with your manager about what’s happening and all the new rules that have to be followed in the future. Doesn’t this all sound nice?

In truth we all want to be able to help out as much as possible. Sometimes that means putting in extra work. For many it also means being promoted to a position of responsibility in a company leading a team or group of teams. That means you will have some new responsibilities and also some new authority. But what’s the difference? And why is one more foundational than the other?

Respect My Authority

Authority is “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior”. It means you have the ability to tell people what to do. You give orders and they are followed. You tell your team the direction that you want things to go and it happens. If it doesn’t there are consequences. When you tell someone they are the boss this is what they usually picture.

Responsibility is “the quality of being responsible,” where responsible means “liable to be called on to answer”. Responsibility is being the one to discuss what happens with the people under your charge. You talk about successes and failures and ultimately serve as the face of the group. When your boss starts looking for someone to tell them what’s going on you’re the one that needs to provide the answers.

As mentioned, many people think leadership and management is about the first thing and less about the second. I’d argue that you’ve worked for them before and it hasn’t been enjoyable. Having orders barked at you or threats of disciplinary action if goals aren’t accomplished are hallmarks of someone that’s focused on authority or on a “power trip”. It’s usually a very unpleasant experience, especially if that person later gets more power or is promoted to a higher level.

Responsibility is what the rest of the population thinks of when you discuss leadership. It’s being accountable for the people you lead. It’s more about celebrating their successes with others when appropriate as well as explaining what happened when there wasn’t the success you’d hoped for. These leaders are often much easier to work for because they empower those they work with and shield you from bad managers and bosses that only want someone other than themselves to accept the responsibility for failure.

A good leader will exhibit qualities of both of these traits to a degree. However, I would argue that the biggest difference between good leaders and bad bosses is how they handle responsibility. Responsibility is the more important of the two qualities to have. That’s because you can delegate authority but you can never delegate responsibility.

Read that last part again. Slowly.

In a formal leadership role, such as a military command, you delegate authority to accomplish things. Officers delegate authority to non-commissioned officers who then may delegate to a lower level like a team leader. At no point is there only one single person issuing all the orders from on high with the expectation that they will be followed by everyone beneath them. Leaders like CEOs may have a vision for how things need to be done but they leave the authority to accomplish those goals up to the leaders closer to the task at hand.

Delegating authority ensures that things are accomplished with efficiency. Could you imagine how difficult it would be for a military command to rely on a single general to give them every single order that was necessary for them to function? That might have worked in antiquity with smaller armies but in a modern force you have to delegate authority to junior officers or enlisted soldiers in order to keep things running smoothly. You also have to trust that the people you’ve placed in that role will get things accomplished. It doesn’t always work out the way you’d like but that’s part of the role of developing good leaders.

Responsibility Bites

What about the other, more important thing? Responsibility can’t be delegated. If the captain of a ship puts a junior officer in charge and something happens? In the example of the USS Fitzgerald colliding with a merchant ship the sailors in charge of the bridge were relieved of command and the ship’s commander faced disciplinary action. Someone had to answer for the collision. The person that caused it faced disciplinary actions but so too did the people in charge. In a different situation removed from the military it might have been easy for the commander to claim they weren’t on duty or they had told someone else to do it but the legal tradition of the US Navy is that the commander of the ship is always responsible for the actions of their crew. They must answer for problems, including colliding with another ship.

Responsibility can’t be delegated. If you are the leader for your team you must answer for their actions. If their actions create success that’s an easy conversation to have. If their actions lead to problems or liability then you also must answer for those as well. You can’t just take credit for the good things. You must also provide the interface when your manager or boss needs to discuss the bad things too. Responsibility for your team fosters the connections that reinforce teamwork. It’s easy to claim it wasn’t your fault that something happened if you weren’t around for it. The best leaders accept that whatever happened must have been because of a lack of training or some other deficiency and answer for it while working to correct the issue. They take the heat to allow for time to fix the issue, either through training or through personnel replacement.

If you’re now staring to see the value of working for an organization where leaders delegate authority to a good team and accept responsibility for their actions, both good and bad, then you know how valuable that can be. Morale will go up, productivity will increase, and most importantly you’ll be training the next generation of leaders in that mold so they become effective.

However, if you’re wondering what it feels like to work in an environment that is the exact opposite, imagine a role where your boss tells you that you must be the one to answer for your actions and that they aren’t responsible for what happens. When someone complains your boss is the first to point out that it’s not their fault. When there is success they claim it was all due to their leadership. When you complain that the rules don’t allow you to be effective your boss tells you that’s just the way it is and you can’t change anything so you need to get used to it.

If that sounds familiar you’re not alone. If that sounds like the role you’re currently in perhaps it’s time to work for a better leader.


Tom’s Take

Good leaders know when to help and when to get out of the way. They don’t take charge. They take responsibility. They highlight success as a team effort and answer when success isn’t there so it can be fixed. It doesn’t have to be as strict as a military command. By delegating authority and being responsible you can set an example for everyone you work with and everyone you work for. If the culture of your organization is the exact opposite it’s time to go somewhere you are valued because bad leaders will soon have no one to take responsibility for them and they won’t be able to boss anyone around they way they really want to.

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