Author: Derek A. Murray | Director of Professional Services

Bad management exists in many forms. There’s the cold, distant boss who doesn’t bother to say “hi” in the morning. There’s the micro-manager who breathes down your neck about every item on your task list. There’s the boss whose authority has gone to his head, so he sends directives from on high without bothering to find out what’s actually happening on the ground floor.  So how can you tell the difference between leadership and authority?

Defining Leadership and Authority

All of these bad managers suffer from a lack of leadership skills and many of them rely solely on their authority to get people to listen to them. They operate from the assumption that because they have official power, their employees will bow to their direction. This is a safe assumption, but if these managers want to secure employee loyalty (and decrease staff turnover), they need to learn the difference between leadership and authority.

Leadership and authority are easy concepts to confuse. A lot of people use the terms interchangeably, and even the dictionary (we’re using the New Oxford American Dictionary) provides similar definitions—but it’s worth noting that the first definitions of each word are fairly different.

Authority is defined as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience,” while leadership is “the action of leading,” or showing the way by traveling before or alongside, “a group of people or an organization.” In other words, having authority means you hold both the stamp of approval and the gavel of judgment, but if you are a good leader, you make sure your people do the work that’s already been approved, rather than waiting for them to prove themselves.

Authority is helpful to have if you’re attempting to lead, but if you have all of the authority and no leadership skills, your attempts to lead will be unpleasant for you and the people you’re in charge of. “My way or the highway” isn’t generally an appealing idea, but it’s even less appealing if the person saying it is unpleasant to be around.

Here are five key ways leadership and authority are different:

1. Leadership is about relationships and teamwork. Authority is about getting things done.

We all understand the importance of making sure that work is done correctly and in a timely manner, but if that’s the number one concern of the person in charge—and she never takes the time to know her employees on a more human level—employee morale will suffer and chances are, productivity will too. Leadership, on the other hand, puts people first.

A leader builds relationships with her team and learns their motivations, concerns, strengths, and weaknesses. This intimate knowledge of her team allows her to make appropriate workplace assignments, setting the team up for success, and her investment also makes her approachable. If problems or concerns arise within her team, they’re more likely to bring them to her because she’s already shown herself trustworthy.

2. Leadership is in the trenches. Authority commands from a distant perch.

A leader doesn’t just invest relationally, give assignments, and leave. A leader takes personally his responsibility for the team and its goals. He involves himself in the work, not just its delegation. This doesn’t, however, mean that he’ll double-check everything his team does.

He trusts his team members to fulfill their roles, but he sees himself as part of the team, so he’ll have a hand in the work’s completion, whether it’s making sure the IFUs are up to date or checking the RFID data of surgical instruments to make sure they went through each reprocessing phase properly.

3. Leaders inspire loyalty. Authority demands it.

There are bosses you’d love to see outside of work, and there are bosses who’ll send you running for the exit if you spot them in the grocery store. Leaders are those you’re happy to see. Because they invest in their teams personally and work alongside their team members, leaders gain the loyalty of their teams—without asking for it.

In contrast, authority that lacks leadership skills expects, and at times demands, loyalty from team members without doing anything to earn it. Just like poor managers expect employees to follow their directions because they have the official power, poor managers expect employees to be loyal to them just because they’re the boss.

4. Leaders set the example. Authority issues orders.

“Do as I say, not as I do” could be the tagline for bad managers. Leaders, on the other hand, lead by example. They don’t expect their team members to exemplify a work culture or ethic that they haven’t modeled themselves—and because they have earned employee loyalty and invested in their team, the team follows their example. In the meantime, a grouchy manager who loudly complains about his staff’s negativity only perpetuates that same negativity.

5. Leaders don’t need titles.

This is the most important point. Authority is official power, but leadership is a character trait. You don’t need to have an official title or powerful position in order to be a leader. You just need to take others into consideration, share the load, carry yourself with integrity and set an example of how to work well—both on the tasks at hand and with the people around you.

You can be the newest person in your department with the least knowledge and expertise, and still be a leader.

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¹ Blanchard, K. (2010). Leading at a higher level. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

²Axelrod, E. M., & Axelrod, R. H. (1998). The conference model: Engagement in action. Organization Development Journal, 16(4), 21. Retrieved from


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