Marco and I have been talking a lot about the role of leadership in organizations. We’ve gotten on to a lot of different tangents, but there’s one important point I’d like to make out in the clear.
Marco’s Bro writes:
When I put someone in charge it’s because I want them to use their discretion — I believe they can be successful. I trust their judgment.
I expect that their team members will support them. I don’t expect unquestioning obedience or anything, but I expect everyone to realize that Leader Guy is, in fact, Leader Guy because I thought he was the best person for the job.
I know Marco’s Bro and, in real life, would probably accept most of his decisions. However, I disagree with this way of thinking in a general sense. My response to his statement goes like this:
What if you made a mistake? What if Leader Guy deceived you into thinking he’s more capable than he really is? What if he’s no longer as capable as he once was (personal problems, brain injury, etc)? What if he’s now out of his area of competence (see: the Peter Principle). What if you only rationalized to yourself that he’s trustworthy, when in actual fact you installed him because he’s dating your sister? What if your trust in him stems from his Harvard degree that his father bought for him? What if your boss chose you because he knew you’d choose That Guy, who happens to be his nephew?
Authority is a dangerous thing. When you trust in vested authority over other qualities then you put all of your eggs in the basket of the authority figure; your risk has gone up dramatically. That may turn out OK if the leader happens to be a good decision maker. However, thousands of years of history have shown us that following the leader doesn’t always work out well, and can often be disastrous. I’m sure everyone has been in a situation where they’ve had to accept the authority of someone who, on the face of it, shouldn’t have been given that power (I know that everyone in the U.S. has).
Marco and His Bro have stated that they don’t expect unquestioning obedience in the leader, but that when the leader has made a decision, they expect the rest of the team to go along with it, even if they think it’s wrong. This strengthens my argument against authority while at the same time cuts its legs out from under it. Yes, you want your leader to be taking the arguments of his subordinates into consideration. If, at the end of the day, he rejects them regardless of their validity, then they may as well not have been voiced in the first place. Both Marco and His Bro have said that if they’d heard of dissent escaping from the confines of the team and propagating up to their level, they’d tend to trust the leader and think of the dissenter as a troublemaker. Of course, that may true in a some cases, but this policy definitely puts a chilling effect on dissent that could be beneficial (or even critical).
In one of my instant messaging chats with Marco, the topic of religion (very briefly) came up. Religion is, of course, the ultimate in authority, both in a supernatural and in a real-world sense. Especially in monotheism, a deity has overwhelming power over its followers, who in turn have none over it. That deity, in turn “installs” its own hierarchy of people to act as a local authority on its behalf — at least according to the people in the hierarchy. Since these people supposedly have privileged access to the deity, they are effectively granted authority by the followers. Religion is particularly good at suppressing dissent, through everything from genocide down to making virtues out of trust and belief without evidence.
Evidence and reasoning are the keys to overcoming the risks associated with authority. They are the great equalizers, because Nature doesn’t care one bit about who has granted authority to whom — but with enough evidence and reasoning you can navigate the rules that Nature has put in place and use them to achieve your goals.
It may very well be that the chosen leader makes successful decisions because she applies the best evidence and reasoning to a problem. Ideally, this should be true in every case; you can make the best decision possible in the shortest amount of time when you don’t have to explain and justify it to others. But we all know that this doesn’t happen every time. Even if the leader has the best reasoning skills, she may not have the best evidence, and so her conclusions might be suboptimal.
This is why I reject authority that exists for its own sake. If an authority figure makes a decision, let the decision stand on its own merits, not on the position of the person who makes it. If it’s a good decision (based on the reasoning and on the evidence), then it’s worth supporting. If there’s an better one, let it be the course of action, regardless of who proposed it. If gathering evidence is too costly (and it often is), then it’s OK to go with the assumptions of the most “experienced” person on the team, but be prepared to reject those assumptions when the evidence contradicts it. Personal experience is a valid argument (we rely on it for a great many decisions), but it’s a weak one, and it should be overridden and/or augmented by objective evidence whenever possible.
Authority, at best, illegitimately takes credit for success. At worst, it leads to failure. Be skeptical of it at all times.