The Agile For Agilists Podcast

The Privilege of Authority is an Unseen Force Limiting Leadership Potential


Authority is a Privilege

It has been said that leading others is a privilege that is earned not a right. In this instance, the word “privilege” refers to “an honor,” “appreciation,” or “a source of pleasure granted,” however, in our modern lexicon privilege tends to mean “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed by a particular person.” This dual meaning is fitting because to be a leader is a privilege by both definitions. This type of privilege is known as “authority” and in cybersecurity an authority is a grouping of privileges, which only increases the appropriateness when one considers the many privileges afforded to people in a position of authority. The problem with privilege is it can limit an organization’s ability to innovate, problem-solve, increase profitability, and many other desirable effects, but it also becomes a proverbial invisible crutch for leaders that not only inhibits but atrophies essential leadership qualities.

Authority Hinders Communication

Consider a scenario from an individual contributor’s perspective. When attempting to persuade or gain approval, intricate negotiations, influence, and convincing arguments are necessary. Contrast this with a leader’s experience, where a mere directive can suffice, and questions posed are often clarifying rather than challenging. Even well-intentioned leaders influence the people they interact with through the natural workings of the human mind. Authority, as outlined by Robert Cialdini, is one of the six principles of influence, shaping opinions into facts and limiting the openness of feedback.

Even when interacting with peers or their own superiors, leaders have an advantage over individual contributors. This is due to leaders naturally recognizing the authority of others, whereas an individual contributor may not even be given an audience or may not be fully listened to. Leaders also have more energy to apply in these instances due to the energy saved when a directive approach is applied for other situations. It is easier to be convincing in some situations when one does not have to be convincing in all situations.

Additional communication skills, often considered to be a fundamental trait of a leader, can be handicapped by authority. Leaders might tend to be more abrupt, less engaging, occasionally vague, and ultimately short on niceties due to their often busy schedule. Likewise, relying on their position to hold their audience’s attention, they undervalue the importance of skilled oration, rhetoric, and delivery. Notably, this trend is observable even among high-ranking executives, albeit with exceptions of remarkably skilled communicators like Maria Eitel, Brandon Beck, and Jason Fried.

Authority Limits Other Crucial Leadership Traits

Networking, another core competency of leadership roles, too, falls under the weight of leadership privilege. As leaders ascend the corporate ladder, people naturally seek connections with them, even external to their organization, often overlooking personal idiosyncrasies to nurture these relationships. The consequence is a potential erosion of essential networking skills due to the apparent success of their current approach.

Another pivotal trait of leadership, Emotional Intelligence (EQ), has also been shown in research to decline as leaders advance in authority. When a leader loses the ability to empathize, they may struggle to comprehend the daily challenges faced by their team members, leading to decisions that lack nuance and understanding. They may also not pick up on cues that an individual needs help, they may struggle in mediating disagreements, and can unknowingly foster an environment where employees feel unheard and undervalued. And if being more effective at your job isn’t reason enough, research has also found a correlation between emotional intelligence and higher salary.

All of these things can result in a lack of self-awareness, and moreover, a lack of accountability. Leaders soon find themselves unable to recognize their own biases and limitations due to this lack of meaningful relationships and open dialogue. Diverse perspectives necessary for making informed decisions and creative thinking become foreign. And since no one is willing to provide them with honest feedback, and what feedback they hear lacks an empathetic understanding, acknowledging mistakes becomes a challenge. Not only does this lack of self-awareness hinder a leader’s personal growth, but it can stifle innovation and creativity within a team, limiting the organization’s potential.

These Challenges Can Be Overcome

To address these challenges, leaders must consciously engage in continuous self-reflection. Acknowledging the privilege that comes with their position is the first step towards effective leadership. Actively seeking feedback, not just from superiors but also from peers and subordinates, can provide valuable insights, fostering an environment of open communication and growth.

Additionally, leaders can invest in empathy-building exercises, such as reflecting on how certain situations make them feel or practice random acts of kindness. Encouraging a culture of accountability, where leaders practice vulnerability by admitting mistakes and working towards rectification, sets a precedent for the entire organization. Moreover, promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives can broaden leaders’ perspectives, fostering a rich tapestry of ideas and approaches.

Turning Privilege Into Power

In conclusion, leadership privilege is inherent and cannot be eliminated, however, leaders possess the unique opportunity to leverage their privilege to create opportunities for others, fostering favorable circumstances where none existed before. By embracing self-awareness, empathy, and accountability, leaders can bridge the gap created by authority. The path to effective leadership lies not in the enforcement of power but in its humble acknowledgment. In nurturing these qualities, leaders can transform their privilege from a potential hindrance into a powerful tool for positive change, both within their organizations and in the broader professional landscape. Through continuous self-improvement and a commitment to inclusivity, leaders can truly fulfill their roles as guides, mentors, and catalysts for success.


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