OK. So you’ve been put in charge of something – a business, a department, a project or a team. If you’ve been appointed from above, as most of us tend to be, you’re vested with some prima facie legitimacy: There’s an announcement somewhere, an appointment notice or a directive, whether formal or informal, that puts you in charge of that team or endeavor that you must now lead.
The kind of authority that is conferred upon you from above is undoubtedly useful as a starting point. Even in this age of collaboration, cooperation and shared decision-making, there is an element of top-down hierarchy in most organizations which jumps out at you the second you look at any organizational chart.
Formal authority flows from above and most people will readily follow your lead, but being anointed as a leader by your superiors will only take you so far. In order to become truly effective in your new role, even if you operate within an archetypal command-and-control organization, you must find a way of quickly establishing your own, personal legitimacy as a leader.
A lifetime ago, I underwent training as an infantry officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Here’s one of the very first things we were told on the very first day of training (or as close as I can recall after all those years):
Instructor: “Ladies and gentlemen, remember that the Army can put a rank insignia on your shoulders but at the end of the day, the people under your command are the ones who will decide if you’re their leader.”
Those words, spoken by a senior non-commissioned officer to a classroom full of young officer cadets and underscored by examples and observations from a decades-long career, made a strong impression on me at the time and have stuck with me for the past thirty years. They encapsulate, in my mind, the difference between positional authority and personal legitimacy in leadership roles; between being “the boss” because the organization has so decreed, and being the leader because people have willingly chosen to follow you. Ideally, formal leaders should operate at the confluence of both.
Personal legitimacy can only be conferred upon you, willingly, by the people you lead. It must be earned. You add to it or subtract from it every single day through every one of your words and actions (mostly your actions). This kind of legitimacy is generally multi-faceted and does require some elements of expertise or technical proficiency, as people are unlikely to follow you if you have no idea what you’re doing. But by definition, personal legitimacy has nothing to do with your rank or position and flows instead from how you handle yourself and behave towards others. It’s about personal character, personal effectiveness and and how you make other people feel. It’s about what you bring to the table and how others react to it.
There are, unfortunately, quite a few ways in which you can undermine your personal legitimacy as a leader. One of those is to keep reaching for the cover and perceived safety of the chain of command. I have observed this with less effective leaders at various levels, who try to hide behind the sometime made-up or deformed instructions of some higher authority in order to get people to fall in line, or to get themselves out of difficult or uncomfortable situations.
What such leaders fail to grasp is that every time they hide behind someone else in this way – be it a specific superior or some amorphous senior authority –, they abdicate their responsibilities and, in the process, damage their personal legitimacy as leaders. The bottom line is that if you want to develop into a truly effective leader at the confluence of positional authority and personal legitimacy, you must embrace the personal accountability that comes with the territory. There will be challenges for sure, but many people up and down the organization will be there along the way to lend a hand. Nobody ever said that this leadership thing was going to be easy, but it’s a great and rewarding journey.