Nicolo Machiavelli argues in his book “The Prince” that if one had to chose between being feared or loved, it is better to be feared. I am willing to bet that if we took a poll of 100 business leaders or project managers they would likely agree with Machiavelli. Project management practitioners in particular struggle with the fact that the lack of authority that they have is frustrating. Sure, it is great to develop techniques to motivate and lead without authority, but I would venture to guess based on my experience in PM that sometimes we just simply would love to have that authority to move things along without having to constantly worry about team members pushing back and challenging.
The type of authority that I am talking about here is one that comes from a position of power. It is the ability to “influence” someone to do something because of a certain role (such as CEO, President, etc…) or a strong base of support (such as Union Leader). This type of power on the face of it seems like the ideal way for project management practitioners to get things done quickly and efficiently.
It may be that over a month ago I might have even been inclined to agree with this reasoning. However, having been glued to news out of the Middle East region, we are seeing a remarkable chain of events that at a minimum questions whether authority is even useful. Conventional wisdom in many of the countries that have seen revolution and unrest has been that the population would never question their leader because of the fact that this leader, who happened to be a dictator, would wield “his” power and initiate negative action against those who oppose him.
While that mode of operation worked, even for decades, the unfolding events are beginning to prove that these tactics are not sustainable. People and teams are willing to fear “leaders” with authority and power, however, people will only be inspired to follow if they feel motivated.
Those of us in the project management ranks have learned this lesson early. In fact, having worked in certain regions of the world I can also state that the title of “manager” does little to inspire loyalty by those who are “managed”. I have seen countless situations where those employees rebelled against their management chain thus creating an ugly situation for themselves and the organization.
In disciplined organizations (mature organizations, some would argue) there is a greater deal of respect for the chain of command. People are willing to obey orders even if they don’t agree with them because they understand that certain decisions are “above their pay grade.” However that does not always translate to positive results for the organization.
In a previous post I discussed the concept of democracy and how it might apply to corporations. Having thought some more about concepts of power and authority I believe I’ve reached a simple conclusion. Authority is over-rated, fear comes and goes. True loyalty and positive results are the by-product of proactive and constant engagement with stakeholders. True leaders are not afraid to justify to their followers certain decisions and are able to successfully convince them to support them.