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power, authority & leadership

A few weeks back I was struggling to find something to watch on a Sunday afternoon when I came across the classic Cruise/Nicholson film "A Few Good Men".

It had been a few years since I'd last seen the movie and as it neared the climax with Nicholson's outburst '.....you can't handle the truth...' my mind drifted to the film's interplay between power, authority & leadership.

At the beginning of the film, Nicholson's Colonel Nathan R. Jessep is the ultimate Authority figure. His authority rests with his position - Colonel - which has been delegated by people above him in the chain of command.

Jessep also holds Power - he acts as the ultimate decision maker & those around him permit him to do so. He orders subordinates to take action and they follow those orders, without question. Remember 'the code'?: unit, corps, God, country.

Finally, Jessep demonstrates Leadership (by my definition anyway) which can best be seen in his exchange with Cruise's Lt. Daniel Kaffee:

"I run my unit how I run my unit. You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances. I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4000 Cubans who are trained to kill me, so don't think for one second that you can come down here, flash a badge, and make me nervous."

As the story moves into it's second and third acts Jessep's grip on Power & Leadership are eroded - and ultimately his Authority is removed.

As I gave more thought to Power, Authority and Leadership in the context of Jessep, and then more broadly, I came to some definitions & characteristics of my own about each of them:

  • Authority is hierarchical. Authority is based on Position and is delegated or designatedby someone (or a group of people) above in the hierarchy. Because Authority is delegated it can also be removed.

  • Power is given, bequeathed or provided. Ultimately it is through the acts (compliance) of others that an individual holds Power. Power is moved to an Authority figure by other (usually subordinate) people who consent (knowingly or unknowingly) to this transference. To my mind, for any person to hold Power in the longer term they must understand that Power is given to them and it is, therefore, limited in scale & time. Over time, the Authority figure must be willing & prepared to yield Power back to those who provided it to hold in escrow - for it is these people that truly own the Power and it must ‘rest’ with them to be given when required. Failure by an Authority figure to understand this will result in hubris and ultimately the removal of Power & the subsequent downfall of the Authority figure.

  • And finally, Leadership. For me, Leadership has absolutely nothing to do with either Power or Authority. Certainly, power and authority may assist in the exercising of Leadership BUT they are neither pre-requisites NOR essential. Leadership is about DOING: Leadership (my definition) is courageous ACTION in situations of disequilibrium.

What are your thoughts on Power, Authority & Leadership?


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