Three years after joining CMA Ontario in August 2007, I’ve learned much about authority (“governance”) and how that impacts or influences one’s leadership.

As a kid I was the youngest of five brothers with a sister behind me. My parents were certainly not as attentive to me as they were with my oldest brother and my younger sister. I was pretty much left on my own to fend for myself and also to do my own thing. There were the occasional acts of discipline to let me know Dad was still in charge (“leadership”), but they were few and far between. As I grew older I became more independent.  This freedom became a significant factor in how I approached life. My parents had instilled in me a high value system, so (“major”) breaches in ethical and legal codes were never the case. But since I loved my independence, having to work in jobs that were so rules based (“accounting”) and with such strict reviews (“audits”) in addition to strict supervisory oversight, were always a challenge. I always wondered why so many had to check what I had done, was doing or was planning to do. 

Fortunately I landed in companies where my superiors gave me tremendous freedom and independence. Finally, once I became President the shareholders of the company simply said, “All we expect of you is to produce an ROI that meets our investment goals and we will leave you alone.  But if you don’t, we will get someone who can!” So this great status in having freedom of will and choice that I thought was the ultimate position in life had its price. At one point I wasn’t convinced I would be able to meet the ROI goal expected of me, so we sold the company. 

Moving in to the role of President & CEO of CMA Ontario was a huge paradigm shift for me and a huge risk for the Board of Directors (BOD). They hired someone from an entrepreneurial background to lead a regulated not-for profit accounting organization with a well established governance (“authority”) structure. My attitude coming into the job couldn’t be one of “I’ll do what I want” as I had been used to most of my life. I had to accept and respect the source of my authority that influenced my leadership. I quickly learned that the BOD receives its authority from the Members (while focused on the interests of the corporation). The President & CEO receives his/her authority from the BOD. Management receives its authority from the President & CEO and so on. It seems so simple, and it is, and it works, most of the time. I am given the freedom to carry out my role and responsibilities and exercise my leadership according to the authoritative code (“governance”) that is laid out for me. If I breach that authoritative code (“governance”), conflict arises and if not resolved, consequences are applied.

But it made me think. Why do some of those in our organizations have such problems with authority (“governance”)? Why do these people at times in their careers believe they are not subject to the ones that are in authority, that is those that have been put in a position of leadership? What causes leaders to be impotent, incapable of fulfilling their mandate?

An article written by Eric Klein of Dharma Consulting addresses this topic quite well. 

When it comes to leadership, most organizations (people) are the same way: we want and don’t want leadership.

We’re ambivalent about leadership.
We like it when people exercise leadership in ways that are inspiring and bring out our best qualities. We like leadership that generates breakthrough results without requiring us to break a sweat. But we don’t want leadership if it causes discomfort, confusion, or sore muscles (mentally and emotionally). We don’t want to have to go through a lot of messy transformation on our way to breakthrough results.

This ambivalence makes exercising leadership a real challenge.
Because the people you work with both want and don’t want you to exercise leadership. Essentially, they want you to resolve their struggles without any . . . well . . . struggle. And that is rarely possible. So, when you take leadership action – you’ll be met with an ambivalent response. In some ways, your leadership is longed for and welcomed. In other ways, it’s the last thing anyone really wants from you.

This ambivalence applies to your boss, your peers, and your direct reports.
And it makes the practice of leadership tricky. Marty Linsky, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, captures this trickiness perfectly in his phrase: “Leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.”

Facing this ambivalence can trigger your own doubts and hesitancy about exercising leadership.
Better, it seems, to rely on your authority – the power that comes with your job description. At least, when you wield your designated authority, no one can say you’re not doing your job. Because, that’s exactly what you will be doing when you act within those well-defined bounds.

It’s when you step over the line of your sanctioned authority that you enter into the ambivalent world of leadership.
That’s when people can say, with some justification:

  • “Who does he/she think he is?”
  • “That’s not her/his job!”
  • “We don’t have to listen to him/her.”

When people sense that you’re acting outside the bounds of your sanctioned authority – they’re ambivalent.
A part of them is relieved and thankful that at last someone is speaking the truth. While another part of them is irritated and anxious about dealing with issues that have been unspoken, even taboo, for so long.

When people in your organization call out to you for leadership – be aware.
They do want leadership. And they don’t. For a lot of reasons: their plate is full; they’re busy and overwhelmed. And they’re comfortable in their current state – no matter how miserable that comfort may appear.

All this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lead.
It just means that you need a strong sense of purpose to guide you. A purpose that can keep you company as you encounter the inevitable ups and downs that will occur as you experience the organization’s ambivalence to leadership.

This purpose is at once deeply personal and organizationally relevant.
It can’t simply be an idea that’s logical. Logical arguments rarely have the power to withstand organizational ambivalence. (This is not to say that you must abandon logic. No. You must simply augment the logic of your position with a deeply felt sense of values and purpose.)

The more intimately you can fuse your own sense of values with the idea you’re proposing – the more you will be able to weather the storm of ambivalence.

Are you ready to wade in? Here are some questions to get started:

  • What is an issue that you believe needs attention and is currently being neglected?
  • What is a conversation that you believe needs to happen but which is currently being avoided?
  • What is an idea that you believe needs to be championed but is currently without powerful sponsorship?

Your answers to these questions are your invitation to exercise leadership.
But, don’t dive right in. Recognize that you will be welcomed and resisted. Embraced and argued with. It’s inevitable. So, take it slowly. Because while what you’re offering the organization may, from your perspective, look as tempting and tasty as wonderful dessert. But people can only absorb it a spoonful at a time.

Those in leadership may find themselves in a lonely place at times. It takes courage, perseverance and a strong sense of purpose to overcome those who resist you. Don’t give up because your leadership is required to move the organization forward. At the same time, don’t misuse your authority.