What if the deepest purpose of a business is to change the lives of the people who work there, starting with yours?
I don’t mean the only purpose, and perhaps not even the primary, but the deepest. In other words, what if the path to solving the most pressing problem your team or business faces today — whether that’s in sales, in marketing, or in your customer experience — lies not in trying to solve those problems directly — through plans and spreadsheets and initiatives — but through development conversations that lead to growth — both with others and the ones we have with ourselves?
If that’s the case, then we have to shift the way we have conversations with ourselves and our team members, centering the conversations around growth and accountability, instead of simple task-oriented problem-solving. And in order to do that, we need to examine and shift our basic assumptions about authority.
Most of us have good reason to mistrust authority — some of us more than others. We’ve been betrayed. We’ve been misled, sold one thing and delivered another, over and over. For some of us, a far greater percentage than those willing to admit publicly, the misuse of power has even led to abuse.
These experiences shape how we view our own authority and often affect our ability to use authority in ways that cultivate accountability in both our team members and ourselves. In other words, we haven’t learned how to inhabit positions of authority in ways that have equal parts boundary and empathy. Instead, we operate out of old habits that are inherited from the authority figures around us — or borrowed authority.
At Refound, we aim to cultivate and practice good authority, the kind that leads to accountability and growth.
Here’s an example of what that work looks like:
I once worked with the owner of a small technology company: Mike. In his early 50s, Mike was the picture of kind leadership. He was skilled in his craft, he cared about the lives of the people on his team, and he had incredible personal drive.
There was only one problem — his business had been stuck in neutral for the better part of a decade. He couldn’t get people to take personal ownership of their work. He wasn’t attracting the next generation of leaders, people who would carry the business beyond where he could on his own. He was dealing with a lack of genuine accountability across the organization.
One day, on a video call with half a dozen business owners in Mike’s peer group, we got into a conversation about authority. After a minute or two into the conversation, I asked him, “Mike, what’s your greatest fear when it comes to being an authority?”
He pondered for a few moments and answered, “I don’t know if this is what you’re asking… but what I’m thinking about is my father. My father was an engineer, pretty high up in his firm but not the boss. My whole childhood all I heard about was how the higher-ups were screwing people.”
And so I asked Mike, “How do you think that informs the way you lead your team now?”
He responded, “everything I do is aimed at not being that kind of authority.”
In order to avoid being his father’s boss, Mike took on the role of “Friend” to his team… an archetype you might remember from “Good Authority.” The problem is, you can’t be both friend and effective boss… it doesn’t work.
So, how do you shift from borrowed authority to good authority?
Mike started to make the connections. He started to see that he had a real problem. In order to step into the role that his team needed — to be willing to be tough when tough was called for — he had to discover a kind of leadership that his father’s influence kept him from being able to see. He had to open himself up to a kind of tough that wasn’t cruel, but that was firm and clear in its boundaries.
Mike had to let go of the picture of authority he had unintentionally borrowed from his father… and step into a new kind of authority… his own.
This was a difficult task, but it’s the invitation each of us must step into in order to move from borrowed authority to good authority.
Mike started showing up with more firmness, stopped being available at all hours on his mobile, and stopped replying on group emails that his managers should have been reasonably able to handle.
He had tough conversations with each person on the team about what personal responsibility looks like in practice, using examples from things that had happened during their day.
He started to embody accountability instead of talking about it by requiring others to think, do, and adapt without his oversight.
Like all real change, Mike took two steps forward, one step back for a while. But, at some point, he crossed a threshold. The team realized that the new Mike was there to stay.
As a result, the team reported a new feeling of inspiration. They looked forward to coming to work with a sense that the business was going somewhere again. And Mike hadn’t uttered one word of theory or made one big speech. He just moved from borrowed to good authority, letting go of his fears from the past.
When you change your leadership style, disrupting long-held patterns of authority, the people on your team might be confused for a while. In time, most people will see the upside and use it as an opportunity for growth. There will likely be a few people on your team who want stability, not growth. These folks will be more reluctant to make the pivot.
The key is to remember that when someone on the team discovers that they’re not at the right place, and there’s a culture of accountability in place, they will almost always move on, and it ends up being a win for everyone.
What Mike had been doing, until he started to change, was what we all do in one form or another. It’s human. It’s natural. It’s reasonable.
As children, and for all the years of our lives until we find ourselves in a position of authority in our career, we rely on the authority stories we’ve internalized from the formative moments of our past.
The task of becoming a Good Authority is to find these stories, to understand how and why we hold them, to respect the truth and lessons they contain — and then to let them go.
That’s the journey.
It’s a journey that leads to a profound new space that is less cluttered by the pictures of the past — where you can listen to the people on your team in a new way. You’ll start to see your team practice accountability in themselves and require it of others. And you’ll start to see that your life and the lives of people on your team change for the better.
Here are a few questions to reflect on that can help you start your unique journey from borrowed to good authority:
- What stories do you have about authority that are vivid in your memory — from your childhood, from work, or perhaps even from a difficult relationship?
- Was there one person who had a lot of authority in your eyes — at work or at home — who abused that power in a way that impacted your life?
- Without judging or being harsh with yourself, how are you still holding onto that pain?
- How do you think your internal dialogue around authority is impacting the way you show up as a leader in your role today?
- What’s one specific behavior that you know doesn’t belong to you that you can work on stopping as a daily practice?
As you consider and work with these questions, don’t rush it. Stay with them for a while, let them work on you. Give yourself permission to not have the answers, to be frustrated by them. Embrace the stretch that it invites you into.
The journey to reclaim our authority is worth it.