All About Authority -- Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Unless owners grant their managers the freedom to act, those managers will never rise to the stature of 'leader.' 1998.

by Anthony Noel

It can be tough finding people to fill leadership roles in a custom shop; but it can be even tougher for a shop owner to truly grant them the authority to perform well.

TAKE-CHARGE INDIVIDUALS needed at growing woodworking company. We're looking for experienced cabinetmakers who know how to direct and motivate coworkers in a custom shop environment. Top dollar paid to the right people. If you have what it takes, call (123) 555-7070.

We have all seen help-wanted ads that read something like this. Maybe you have even placed one of them for your own business. But what is a 'take-charge individual,' where can you find one, and what is the difference between a good one and a nuisance?

You may have good luck with an ad like the one above and attract exactly the type of person you need the first time out. More likely, though, you have learned that there is a thin line between the take-charge person who is an asset and one who is a little too 'over-the-top,' a little too faultless and who, in the end, simply tries your patience. If you don't know the difference, you will in a minute.

Someone once said: 'Authority is 10 percent granted and 90 percent taken.' There are a couple of ways to comprehend this statement, and a couple of ways to act on it. Ask the second type of take-charge individual (the try-your-patience type) what the statement means to him and he may say something like, 'It means that those who really know what they are doing should do whatever they must to impose their Authority on those who don't.'

Ask the other take-charger (the one who is an asset) what he thinks and he will probably say, 'It means that no matter how knowledgeable I may be, no matter how willing I am to take the reins and steer things where I know they must go, if I am not granted the Authority to act in the first place, I will face an uphill battle in achieving my goals.'

Or, put another way, 90 percent of Authority is useless to a person if those in power refuse to grant him the remaining 10 percent.

At this moment, dear reader, you are likely either (a) in complete agreement that the granting of Authority must be total in order to be successful, or (b) believing I'm crazy, that it's not only possible but desirable to maintain some sway in areas where you have little or no expertise, simply because you own the business.

If you fall into group 'b,' this is certainly understandable. It is also entirely wrong.

In my experience, it is the same people who wonder where all the leaders have gone who refuse to let go of leadership roles for which they are not qualified. That thin line between asset and nuisance is usually drawn not by division or department heads, but by top managers and/or owners. There's a big difference between owning a business and running one, and it's no coincidence that the people who understand this best - and realize that running a business is about delegating Authority without meddling after doing so - enjoy the most success.

Take another look at our example of the two types of take-charge individuals. They are really the same person. The difference? One has a boss who has 'let go.' He has said, 'Here is the result I'm after; do whatever you must to achieve it. And if you don't, understand that there will be consequences.'

The other take-charger, who we identified as 'a little too over-the-top, a little too faultless and who, in the end, simply tries your patience,' is often saddled with an owner or manager above him who talks a great game about delegating Authority, but who always steps back into the picture at the worst possible moment, because he (incorrectly) perceives that things are going wrong. This poor guy often is faultless. It's not that he is not trying, but that he can't make a move without being scrutinized. In such situations, many people will do what they can and let the rest go. Personally, I'd rather have a 'nuisance.'

If you take nothing else from this article, take this: It is utterly crucial, once you have taken the time and trouble to find someone with the qualifications and experience necessary to shoulder a given burden within your organization, that you give that person the freedom to act. Without that freedom, they will be unable to deliver the results you're after. Nothing ties the hands of a manager quite so effectively as a boss who is constantly looking over his shoulder. It really is that simple.

So do what every good manager does: define the goals, be sure your subordinate understands exactly the results you want and your timetable for achieving them (subject to negotiation), and then BUTT OUT. This can be hard, but it must be done. You must resist every temptation to intervene. If your charge needs your input, he will ask for it. Until he does, the best way you can show your support is by allowing him and encouraging him to work his plan. The worst thing you can do is question his every move.

(On second thought, the worst thing is to question his every move in front of his subordinates. As soon as your line people have the slightest notion that you, the top manager or owner, have lost faith in your appointee, you might as well get rid of him. He will no longer have the respect of his people, and without it he will be ineffective.)

As you can (hopefully) see, there are few things that are as dynamic, sensitive and demanding as Authority or, to use another word, Power. It must be handled as gingerly as nitroglycerine, because it is at least as explosive. In careless hands, it can be lethal to your company.

Let us suppose, for a moment, that your manager does come to you for advice. Does this then give you carte blanche to step in whenever you feel it necessary? NO. NEGATIVE. FORGET IT. ABSOLUTELY NOT. (Got that?) What it means is that you picked the right person, someone mature enough to admit he might not know everything. And let's hope that when he comes to you for advice and then decides to go in another direction, you will have the maturity to accept that you don't have all the answers either.

A good manager is a very deliberative person. He or she gets all the information possible before making a decision and bases his eventual course on the information that is most factual, least speculative and most likely to lead to a positive outcome. Face it: Such information will not always come from you and shouldn't, or you wouldn't have needed a manager to handle this particular aspect of your business in the first place.

This is an important point, because it speaks to another hallmark of maturity: namely, knowing when you don't know what you're doing. Anybody can do almost anything. Some people can do several things well. But nobody can do everything optimally, and those who think they can are kidding themselves.

The first step to finding leaders who can take your company to the next level is identifying your own strengths and weaknesses and structuring leadership roles around the areas where you are lacking. The next step is not a want ad like the one at the top of this article, but a good look around your organization, aimed at finding people whose strengths supplant your weaknesses.

Often such leaders are right under your nose. Sometimes you will have to conduct a wider search. But give your own people the first shot when possible - and the freedom they need to succeed - then focus on doing what you do best while they do the same. Get status reports. Give status reports. Encourage an atmosphere throughout your company that develops leaders, and you will always have a ready supply as your needs change.

There's one more thing. Remember that, as the owner or top manager, all eyes are on you. People are looking to you for cues and clues - verbal and non-verbal - about everything from their future to how serious you are about setting and following policy. The minute you break a policy, it becomes useless because ultimately, you are the prime example-setter in the organization. So always, always, always, think before you act.

There is nothing easy about taking the steps detailed here. The dynamics of Authority are a double-edged sword. But to those who understand and work with them, they provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities almost every day of the week.

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

Have a business related question? Visit WOODWEB's Business Forum. The Business Forum is co-sponsored by ISWonline and is moderated by Anthony Noel. All business topics are welcome, from sales and marketing to dealing with difficult customers.

This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.