Authority and Responsibility

For a couple of years, along with a partner, I operated a consultancy specializing in strategic planning. When I first got started, I realized that it was tempting, but a mistake, to forcefully put forward specific solutions to problems: a mistake, because it is easy to offer solutions if you don’t suffer the consequences if they are wrong.

Whether they admit to it or even realize it, consultants have authority. After all, if you pay someone for their opinions shouldn’t you enact them? What consultants have is authority without responsibility; and authority without responsibility is a recipe for failure.

In a prior job, I was the executive director of a trade association that sponsored a workers compensation self-insurance fund. When the administrator of the fund suddenly resigned, the trustees appointed a volunteer to serve as an interim administrator. He was a well-intentioned, strong willed person who offered up solutions to every issue we faced: solutions that were often not well thought through but occasionally adopted. By deferring to his recommendations, the association’s board was granting him authority and putting me in a difficult situation: I had the responsibility to enact but not the power to originate or change the programs. He had authority without responsibility and I had responsibility without authority.

With authority has to go responsibility and with responsibility has to go authority. As a manager, if you assign a job to someone, you must also grant him or her the authority to marshal the resources necessary to carry out the task. Conversely, you should not award someone authority without also assigning them responsibility. Responsibility without empowerment breeds frustration and failure; while authority without responsibility leads to carelessness and failure.

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