By whose authority?

I hate to admit it, but I'm becoming one of those "old guys" I thought I would never be. Maybe you know how it is: You catch yourself saying something your father always said but you vowed you would never say.
By Richard L. Dunn Editor November 1, 2000

I hate to admit it, but I’m becoming one of those “old guys” I thought I would never be. Maybe you know how it is: You catch yourself saying something your father always said but you vowed you would never say. You answer your daughter’s question with “Because I said so.” You suddenly realize that “Omigosh, I’m becoming one of them!”

Right now, I’m in that confused group that don’t know whether they’re seniors or not. The AARP says I’m definitely a senior. The local restaurant says I have a few years to go. My self image says I haven’t grown up yet. But my boss is younger than I am.

The reason I bring this up is to let you know that I’m wrestling with what is to me a new concept-responsibility without authority.

I had always been taught that this was a bad leadership concept. As an NROTC midshipman, I was told that responsibility and authority always went together; you couldn’t have one without the other. We could not hold our personnel responsible, we were told, if they didn’t have sufficient authority to control the things they were being held responsible for. And conversely, if you had the authority, you automatically had the responsibility that went with it.

Now I’m sitting in a seminar on trends in business, and the speaker is telling me that responsibility without authority is the way things are these days and that we’d better get used to the idea. And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. Easy to say, difficult or impossible to implement.” But the speaker is saying that’s the way it is.

Responsibility without authority, the speaker says, means you have to be able to convince the people with authority to go along with or approve the activities you’re responsible for. My mind is responding, “Okay. So the people with authority are then taking some responsibility for the success or failure of your activity. If they approve, they are giving you authority to proceed. If they disapprove, they are relieving you of your responsibility. The old relationship holds true.”

Then the speaker adds, “In today’s world of teams, matrices, webs, and chaos theory, the old rules no longer apply.”

Rats. I thought I had it figured out. Guess I need to find an authority on the subject.