This post completes our tour of John Isaacson’s three important attributes needed to develop leadership capacity: hunger, speed and weight.
Here is John’s definition of weight:
“Weight concerns how someone carries his or her authority. It concerns the ability to learn and speak the truth to superiors fearlessly, but the ability to accept and execute their decisions. The exercise of authority is experienced as weight when it is in the service of a mission or task, not simply interpersonal bullying.”
What does John mean when he says “the exercise of authority”? What is authority? These questions are important because we have confused authority with leading for a long time.
We get some guidance from Ron Heifetz of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Heifetz has produced some of the most important ideas on leading in the last 25 years. He makes a clear distinction between authority and leading. He defines authority as “Formal or informal power within a system entrusted by one party to another. The basic services authority provides are direction, setting norms, providing protection and order.”
Notice that Heifetz’s definition of authority is agnostic to good/bad or right/wrong. President Trump has a great deal of authority and depending where you locate yourself on the political spectrum, his use of authority is viewed as helpful and good or not helpful and bad. Isaacson’s definition of the weight of leading assumes best intent. That is not always our experience with authority figures.
Heifetz sees leading as a choice and an activity vs. a role in an organizational system. Most authority is vested in defined role positions. This is where confusion occurs. People see an organization chart and assume it is a map of leadership strength and capacity.
It is not.
Sometimes people with authority choose to lead and other times they fail to meet the moment.
Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post, references a conversation Austan Goolsbee had with the late, great former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker during the financial crisis of 2008. Volcker said, “the only asset you have in a crisis is your credibility. All normal, non-crisis time should be spent establishing the credibility you’ll need when a crisis inevitably hits.”
What Vocker calls credibility, Isaacson calls weight. Either way, we could use more leadership and fewer light-weights.
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