No one becomes a fully mature leader overnight. We all develop our leadership potential over time through exposure to increased responsibilities, frequent leadership experiences, and unfortunately, repeated failures. Although there are many different paths to leadership, there seems to be a predictable path that all of us go through to becoming a fully developed, and fully influencing, leader.
The three primary stages of leadership development are leadership through authority, leadership through power, and leadership through influence. Everyone begins at stage one no matter how young or old, and hopefully progresses through the stages of leadership toward influence. Unfortunately, not all arrive at stage three, and some get stuck or content in a previous stage.
Authority is largely expressed through titles, position and delegation. Children are introduced to this beginning stage of leadership when the teacher announces on the playground, “Children, let’s play a game of softball. Johnny and Sally, why don’t you two be the team captains and take turns picking your team mates?” With a simple act of delegation of authority and a title, Johnny and Sally are now leaders (if only for a fleeting moment).
In corporate life, we become very familiar with titles: manager, supervisor, team leader and boss. Each title carries with it a measure of authority, and in the beginning stages of leadership we use our titles to lead: “I am your supervisor, so this is how I would like you to perform your work.” Parents are well versed at leading their young children through authority as well: “I am the parent and you are the child, and you will do as I say.”
Leadership through authority is a legitimate form of leading, especially for people newly introduced to leading. But there is a downside. Leadership through authority becomes a problem when the authority is self-appointed or exceeds the reasonable expectations of the position. This stage of leadership can also become a hindrance when one gets comfortable and doesn’t know how to mature to stage two.
Leading through power may sound inappropriate, but there are many different expressions of power: the power of words, emotional power, the power of presence (or personality), intellectual power, and yes, even physical and coercive power. Like authority, if power is not contained with accountable boundaries, it can also be abused and easily corrupted. But power is a legitimate expression of leadership, and when used appropriately it can inspire dreams (the power of words), move hearts (the power of emotions), and develop trust (the power of presence).
As parents, we also know the value of leadership through power, although we are more likely to use power in less than ideal ways with our children and youth: “Do it because I say so!” “I’ll give you to the count of three to obey or I’m coming over there to help you.” When we begin to lead through power as a developing leader, we never totally abandon leadership through authority; we just add another stage of leadership to our repertoire.
As children become teenagers and young adults, parents quickly learn that leading through authority or power no longer work. Often the only sway parents have at this point is through influence: the influence of wisdom, experience, expertise, trust, values or maturity. Leading though influence is the pinnacle of leadership in almost every sphere of life, especially in situations where one must lead but has no direct authority. It’s also been referred to as the period of the sage, or mentoring. Occasionally the mature leader will still lead through authority and power, but influence becomes his or her primary method.
Wilson is a business practitioner and leadership specialist. He is still running companies after 30 years and just earned a doctorate in management and leadership.