Many leadership development programs discuss the careful balancing act that is often required for leaders. Leaders have power, but they also have responsibilities.

Leadership is in many ways a balancing act.

Leaders also have authority, which is both something that is designated by those higher up and a personal quality based on influence and personal relationships. How they use power and authority has great bearing on their success as leaders. I have worked with leadership coaching clients who confuse power and authority and as a result, lead less effectively. I believe that understanding the differences between the two can help in understanding the roles and responsibilities of leaders.

How Power and Authority Differ

In a strictly physical sense, power is a rate of transferring energy over a set period of time, like the electrical power you use to make your computer work. In terms of human relationships, it is an ability to force someone to do what you want, even if they don’t want to, because of your (real or perceived) might. Power can get things done, as any historical account of warfare will attest. It is necessary for roles of leadership, but it must be used judiciously and not abused.

Authority, on the other hand, is more analogous to the electrical cables that get the power to your office. Those cables are “authorized” to bring power to your home for you to use as you see fit. In terms of leadership, authority is the glue that holds together the many promises of leadership. It has several key attributes:

  • It is decisive
  • It is accomplishment-oriented
  • It is influential
  • It is courageous
  • It inspires

Leaders Need Both Power and Authority

Power is something simple and basic. It is often more effective in the shorter term. In World War II, for example, the Allies had the power to liberate Paris by forcing the Germans out. Sometimes power is necessary and right. Most of us would use our physical power to pull a child out of the path of an oncoming car, for example.

There’s no question that sometimes the exercise of power is necessary.

Authority is also necessary for leadership. Because of their decisiveness, accomplishment track record, influence, courage, and inspiration, great leaders are able to help their teams accomplish great things. Great leaders may have power, but they are more likely to hold it in reserve and rely on authority to lead. But outstanding leaders know when circumstances necessitate the use of power. Such a leader, for example, won’t hesitate to fire someone for egregious misbehavior.

Excellent Leadership Qualities Reduce Need for Use of Sheer Power

Strong leadership development programs help leaders develop qualities that will minimize their need to rely on sheer power to get things done. Rather, they help emerging leaders develop qualities that inspire others to do the right thing, work hard, and engage with their tasks. Authority is ultimately a more efficient and effective manifestation of leadership than raw power is.

While the exercise of power is sometimes necessary, the leader who relies on power to get things done ultimately strains relationships and may drive good people away. Authority that is used in accordance with strong leadership qualities strengthens relationships and helps team members develop the confidence to do their work better.

Earned leadership can be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, there will always be leaders who use their position to abuse power, and while they may make things happen in the short term, they lose out over the long term.

Leadership development programs that teach leaders the qualities of meaningful authority are likelier to turn out leaders who recognize the value of accomplishments, inspiration, example, and other effective leadership skills. These leaders, who recognize when power must be used and when it should be held in reserve, are the ones that stand to accomplish the most over the long term.


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