Monday, February 23, 2004

Authority and my thoughts

First, I published a letter to the editor in the Philadelphia Inquirer today that has generated a good deal of feedback, both positive and negative. The positive: "Right on!" The negative: "Stupid!" You can link to the Inquirer thusly.

I've been thinking alot about authority, because several people have told me lately that I handle it well. At risk of sounding immodest I agree, and I'll share an experience that helped shape my views of the responsible use of authority. Some years back I was working at a law office, and in my duties I interacted with one of the senior partners named (for purposes of this blog) Mike. Mike was in charge of the lawyers in his field of specialization, and once, while sitting in his office, I got to hear him take a phone call from one of his subordinates. This guy was carping and complaining and being really quite insolent, and I remember thinking, "My gosh! This guy's talking to his boss this way? If I were Mike, I'd give him quite the smackdown." Mike, however, just nodded and smiled, and smoothly put the guy off, all the while remaining calm and composed. It was then I realized that composure and non-assuming attitude was the secret of Mike's success as a team leader. He didn't need to assert his authority; he never felt it was threatened. (BTW, Mike was a great guy with whom I feel lucky to have worked.)

A good leader wears his authority not like a crown, but like his ordinary clothing. Think about it: How often are you aware of that very fact that you're wearing clothing? How often are others? Answer: Very rarely, since you almost always wear clothes. Authority should be the clothes you put on in the morning and then don't consider much during the day. Only those who can't handle their authority feel the need to assert it frequently, or to wield it heavy-handedly. That's the difference between a petty tyrant who demands obedience, and a true leader who commands respect.

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