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leadership lab

It's common to assume that successful senior leaders spend the majority of their time making decisions, directing subordinates, allocating resources, and resolving conflicts. A related assumption is that the more senior the leader's position, the more power and authority she or he has to impose their will on others.

In fact, the reality of effective leadership is almost completely at odds with this stereotype. Highly effective leaders do not get things done by issuing orders and directives to obedient underlings. Rather, they achieve success by unleashing the energy of the organization by creating an environment that generates a sense of commitment and engagement in their people. And they do this by giving away – not hoarding – the power and authority of their own positions.

Effective leaders recognize that people are motivated to work hard when they feel a sense of personal responsibility for effectively performing activities that they care about. But a sense of personal responsibility is impossible without a significant degree of autonomy. Effective leaders recognize this by empowering their subordinates – giving them plenty of room to exercise judgment and make decisions about how they get their work done.

But while delegation and empowerment are necessary conditions for effective leadership, they don't tell the whole story. Empowerment can actually lead to chaos if it is not accompanied by clarity from the leader regarding:

1. Where we are going – the vision

2. How we will get there – the strategy

3. How we will conduct ourselves – the organization's core values

An effective leader must also ensure that people possess the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve what is expected of them. This in turn requires leaders to carefully select the right people, assign them to roles to which they're suited, and to ensure they have the right training, development and coaching to accomplish what is asked of them.

So, effective leaders realize that their role is to create the context for effective performance by those reporting to them. That means leaders must work hard to remove ambiguity for their subordinates regarding what they are trying to accomplish together (their vision), how they are going to move toward that vision (their strategy), and how they will conduct themselves on their journey together (their values). Leaders must also ensure that each member of their team also clearly understands their specific role and responsibilities. Once these factors are in place, effective leaders release the latent energy of the team by giving up formal power and authority by clearly delegating it to their team members.

Thinking of leadership effectiveness as giving up power and authority also provides insights regarding the downsides of charismatic leadership. While charismatic leaders can often be effective in the short run, they are rarely successful in creating teams and organizations that endure. Charismatic leaders create energy and enthusiasm based on their personal strengths and magnetism, but they often leave little room for others to exercise initiative or take responsibility for results. It tends to be all about the charismatic leader and his or her role in creating the success. As management expert Peter Drucker said, "charisma becomes the undoing of leaders." Mr. Drucker's insight was that charismatic leaders are rarely successful for the long run because of their unwillingness to give up power and authority, and as a result, their failure to share the credit for accomplishments with the rest of their team.

Leaders are responsible not for doing the work, but for getting the work done through others. And the true challenges of leadership involve getting people to do things that they otherwise would have been unwilling or unable to accomplish on their own. Real leadership is exercised not by giving orders and directions backed up by threats or intimidation. Real leadership is exercised by articulating an exciting vision of the future, getting people effectively aligned with that vision and then inspiring them to work harder and accomplish more than they ever imagined they could. And that only happens when leaders give up some of their formal authority and truly empower their people to take initiative and experience the challenges and rewards of putting themselves personally on the line to accomplish great things.

Hugh Arnold is adjunct professor and former dean at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management (@rotmanschool), where he teaches leadership in the Rotman MBA (@RotmanMBA) program as well as in a number of the school's programs for executives.