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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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Positional and Personal Authority

By Stephen Northcutt

The effective manager has to be brutally honest with themselves, and understand their mindset and their ability to affect change. As you work through the abundance of budgetary, technical, and management information in your profession, it is important to understand where you are now and where you need to grow. This will help you to periodically develop a "short list" of things you want to ask, change, or implement.

Your goal as a leader is to find ways to increase both your personal and positional power in order to influence your organization to improve their security posture. Personal power is gained through knowledge and experience. Positional power is based on your position within the company. Team members are more likely to be influenced by personal power, and upper management is more likely to listen if you have the positional power to back it up.

Positional Authority

Positional authority is that authority you get from your title and the location of your office (reporting to the Governor, for example).[1] Historically, you had to have a position of authority to be considered a leader - just like in the military.[2] In the Internet Age with communication being so easy to achieve, we are starting to see the emergence of thought leadership. One person with an ability to write can influence industry with something as simple as a blog. However, positional authority is still the most common underpinning of authority.

Direct and Order versus Ask, Plead and Cajole

If you have positional authority, you can direct that things be done at least using the resources assigned to you. This seems like the logical method of management to a person with a military background, but if you try it at a university the best possible outcome you would receive is "lets discuss this." The leader needs to balance persuasion, asking, even pleading with their directive management style.

Positional Authority in a Team Oriented Environment

Self-managed team leaders lead without positional authority. In the self-managed team leaders role, the leader decides to permanently or temporarily set aside positional authority and to move inside the work group to provide direction, communication, group process facilitation, coordination and support. When a leader has not been delegated positional authority from higher-level management and is a member of the work group, none of the traditional issues related to positional authority are present.[3] This is not a common approach in an information security or compliance business unit because of the need for accountability to comply with governing regulations.

Dangers of positional authority

When someone has a higher position or more authority than you, the automatic trigger is that whatever that person says must be true. The FAA found that many errors by flight captains were not challenged or corrected by other members of the crew. This blind obedience to position and authority resulted in catastrophes. One airline, concerned about this evidence, tested their own flight crews via flight simulators. They created conditions that would lead to mental overload and emotional stimulation. The captains (in one study) would make fatal mistakes at a critical moment. The airline was shocked to find that 25% of the flights would have crashed because the subordinates did not take corrective action and challenge the position of the plane's captain.[4]

Personal Authority

This is the art of getting other people to want to do what you want them to do. The smaller the group, the more intimate the relationship, the more important personal authority becomes. We have all seen families where the two year old child is clearly in charge. A two year old has zero positional authority but they can still be the leader, though this is clearly not ideal as they lack the life experience of their parents. The best explanation we have heard for creating and maintaining personal authority is to think of it as a bank account. You make deposits and withdrawals. An "atta boy" is a deposit and a "would you do me a favor" is a withdrawal. Don't try to push the analogy too far because a withdrawal can also be a deposit simply because you are exercising the relationship; but amazingly, if we treat people well, we get our way a lot more of the time. A statement attributed to Zig Ziglar is: You can have anything in your life, if you help others get what they want.[5] The wise leader makes this a core philosophy in their dealings with others.


Even when you do not have positional authority to direct and order, you can communicate and represent your team or groups interests, help your people develop and use their skills, facilitate improved group and work processes, and set an example in terms of ethics, behavior, grace under pressure, energy, and effort. And of course, by practicing situational awareness, you can help everyone around you maintain their focus. This is an example of using personal power and, when done well, will often lead to an increase in positional power and authority.

Appendix - Thought Leadership from a leaders direct article: To be a thought leader, you need to immerse yourself in your professional domain and search for new things to say that add value to your organizations objectives. The thought leader could have weak interpersonal skills and an indifferent character. They could be loners or eccentrics. All that counts is the credibility of their new idea. This is why we can buy innovations offered by odd creative types who we would not entrust to manage any part of an organization. If you can demonstrate the value of your idea and explain it with conviction, you might not need inspirational influencing skills.[6]

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