Good Leaders Don’t Command – Myths (part 6)

Somehow, especially in the church, we’ve come to believe that good leaders don’t exercise authority. The idea of appealing to our position as leaders or to the authority of our office really makes some leaders uncomfortable. “Real leaders inspire people, they don’t command them. After all, authority ultimately comes from the people. If you have to order them about, you’ve already lost the battle.”

Not really.

A leader will not and cannot inspire everyone. Yet non-profits and churches view using authority as “not nice.” The resulting delays to project and goal completion can be maddening.

However, sometimes the job must get done. As leadership scholar Ron Heifetz points out, an emergency room surgeon putting together a new surgical team needs to exercise command (Heifetz, 1994). 

When necessary, it is possible to exercise authority without behaving like an insistent two-year old.

My father, a 30 year Naval officer, provides the illustration of this. (It’s Father’s day Sunday, so I’m allowed to have two father illustrations this week). As a Navy officer rises in rank, he is assigned to all the departments on a ship so that by the time he is promoted to captain, at one time or another he has been in command of all the ship’s systems (gunnery, operations, engineering, etc). 

My father was skipper (that means “in-charge-of” for all y’all civilian types) of a ship when it began experiencing some difficult engine problems. The repairs were not going well and so the chief engineer was reporting the status of the work to my father. The engineer was stymied, so the report became a discussion with my dad and the chief engineer breaking out the tech manuals and poring over the books and service bulletins trying to figure out what happened and how best to fix it. The chief engineer kept insisting on one kind of lengthy repair and my father was sure that it wasn’t necessary and that something else could be done. The engineer didn’t believe my father’s suggested solution would work and finally in exasperation he said to my father, “Show me that in writing.” My father calmly looked the engineer in the eye and said, “Get me some paper and a pencil.” 

Even in the flattest of organizations, there at times when leaders must exercise authority to get the job done. It can be wielded like a club or deftly applied with humor as my father did. And sadly, sometimes both are needed. Authority is an important element of leadership, even for the relational leader.


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