3 Ways to Develop Personal Authority

Where does your authority as a leader or influencer come from?

There is one type of authority that comes from position or title—positional authority. I had one boss who had strictly positional authority in my life. He didn’t get to know me as a person or my strengths, passions and potential. He wasn’t completely honest with me on numerous occasions and he seemed to be more focused on protecting his image than helping me, and the team, develop.

The position and title is where his authority stopped in my life. Why? Because my boss didn’t genuinely care about my well being and so I didn’t let him in. I didn’t give him authority in my life because he didn’t earn it. I did my job my job and I was respectful, but I wasn’t loyal and I became disengaged due to the poor morale.

Maybe you’ve had experiences like this as well. I’ve been on the receiving end of this. But if I’m honest with myself, I know I’ve also succumbed to the temptation to misuse my positional authority.

The Trap of Positional Authority

Leadership is about so much more than positions or titles. You don’t need either one to lead. And neither of these gives you the authority to truly lead. Yet we so often get trapped into focusing on the authority and power that come from the position we have, or the position we wish we had.

Many people focus on positional authority and get it all wrong. There are two sides to this coin. If you’re in a position of authority, it’s easy to get trapped into focusing on positional authority and lose sight of the deeper aspect of authority, which is much more personal.  This leads to a fear-based mindset in which you focus on the politics of positions and power. Over time, your goal subtly shifts from serving others and your team to maintaining your position of authority or getting to the next rung on the corporate ladder.

On the flip side, you may not have a formal title, or at least not the one you think you need to make a “real” difference. This may lead you to dismiss the influence you can truly have by developing your personal authority. Over time, your goal subtly shifts from developing yourself and your expertise to fretting over how you can get that coveted position.

A Different Kind of Authority: Personal Authority

There is a completely different type of authority that looks and feels different—personal authority. It doesn’t necessarily travel in the halls of power, although it might. Personal authority is the trust and earned right to speak into someone’s life. Positional authority may get results in the short run, but only personal authority will create trust, loyalty, and a deep connection to your vision and values.

When I was in the Army, I learned this is even true in the military where members literally wear their rank on their sleeve. I showed up in the Army as a 26 year-old Captain/psychologist in charge of the mental health clinic. I had 5 enlisted soldiers reporting to me, most of whom were older than me. They didn’t respect me at first just because I was a Captain.  They respected my rank and position. You have to salute soldiers who have a higher rank, but you don’t have to respect them as people just because of their rank. Sure, they saluted me and did what they were supposed to do for the most part. But they didn’t accept my influence or vision at a deeper level until they experienced two things: 1) that I genuinely cared about them and demonstrated it in tangible ways; and 2) that I had genuine expertise as a psychologist that would help our mission. I got to know them on a personal level, encouraged them, respected their knowledge, and asked for their input on how to run the clinic. In the end, I believe I had some measure of personal authority in their lives that fostered loyalty and engagement in our mission.

If you want to make a deep impact and live a life that matters, you must develop personal authority. And personal authority comes, ultimately, from one place—relational virtues deeply ingrained in your soul. The leaders we are naturally drawn to—or at least should be naturally drawn to—are those who display relational virtues. These are the leaders who motivate us to go the extra mile, to become a better person, and to live a life of significance. This is the leader you want to become.

When you live in a virtuous manner, people perceive you as having personal authority and invite you to speak into their lives, regardless of whether you have a certain position. This will also be recognized in healthy organizations, leading to greater responsibilities.

Here, I want to focus on three specific ways in which these virtues are developed: hard work that leads to genuine expertise, growing through suffering, and genuine compassion. Here are some reflections on these three areas to help you develop personal authority that will last a lifetime.

1. Hard work in the trenches that leads to genuine expertise. We trust people who have actual knowledge and expertise in their craft. I read an article recently about Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete in history. He said that for numerous years, they (i.e., he and his coach) didn’t believe in vacations. He trained every. single. day. Thanksgiving? Yep. Christmas? You betcha. I’m not saying this is necessary for everyone; we all need breaks and time to rejuvenate. The point is that Phelps put in the work to develop true expertise in his craft of swimming. Do the hard work behind the scenes to develop relational competence (connection) and technical/knowledge domain competence. Both are important, but without the capacity to connect relationally, you’ll hit a ceiling very quickly no matter how technically competent you are. Research suggests that deliberate practice that stretches you is key to developing expertise. In addition, deliberate reflection on your performance is also key because it should inform your practice. You want to be engaged in a continuous cycle of practice/action and reflection.

2. Growing through suffering. I listened recently to a talk by a man who, 20 years ago, lost his wife, mother, and child in one moment in a car accident. I can’t even imagine the pain. At one point in the talk he said “Happiness is largely independent of circumstances.” That really stuck with me. It stuck with me because it came from a place of personal authority. This was hard-earned wisdom. Virtues are forged in the fires of suffering and this promotes personal authority, because a virtuous person is a person we trust to be genuinely concerned about our well being. We all suffer and go through trials at some point. Growth isn’t inevitable; you have to do the emotional and relational work to process your suffering. There is, however, increasing evidence from research that many people do experience life-changing growth that is stimulated by trials. I’ve written more about growing through suffering here.

3. Genuine compassionate love for others. Compassion for others is probably the key to personal authority. For someone to give you their trust and invite you to speak into their life, they need to feel that you genuinely care about their well being. They need to see evidence that you’re main agenda is not your own image, prestige or status. The pursuit of these things directly will not lead to a fulfilling life in the long run anyway (see my post: Beyond Happy: 5 Factors for a Fulfilling Life, Backed by Science for more on this). Take a step back and evaluate if your focus has subtly shifted toward your own status. It’s easy to drift in this direction without realizing it. If so, think about how you can shift your mindset back toward focusing on contributing to others’ well being. This will foster personal authority and a deeper sense of fulfillment.

There are undoubtedly other sources of personal authority, but I think these three are central. So, do the hard work of developing expertise, growing through trials, and being generous in your compassionate love for others. If you get one or two of these right, you’ll being doing well. But if you get all three, people will give you personal authority in their lives because you will have earned it.

Reflection Question: Who has personal authority in your life and what caused you to trust them? 

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