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CEOs: The Ultimate Authority

CEOs: The Ultimate Authority

In the first article in our series on CEOs, you learned that people in this role are characterized by two things that separate them from everyone else in the organisation. The first is that they carry ultimate responsibility. No matter what happens, at the end of the day, they are the ones left “carrying the can.”

The second thing is that they have ultimate authority. Whatever power anyone else has in the organisation, it has been delegated by the CEO, and no one in that enterprise has more authority than they do.

That combination of ultimate responsibility and authority make the job of the CEO easily the most stressful and lonely because whatever advice, counsel, or encouragement others can provide, all decisions ultimately fall on that person’s shoulders.

In the first article, you learned about leadership. Leadership is an observable behaviour, and although you may not be able to define it, you certainly know it when you see it. CEO leadership is essential to get everyone pointed in the same direction. Leaderless organisations, whether by design or by accident, don’t last long. This is because in the absence of it, everyone is left to figure out the vision and objectives for themselves.

In this second article, we want to think about authority, or the ultimate authority that CEO’s possess.

Ultimate authority

By virtue of their position, CEOs have the authority to direct their organisations towards the vision that they have for it, and to a greater or lesser extent, they rely on it for the power to do as they wish. Those who have the strongest purpose will be the most determined to achieve it.

Authority misunderstood

Many people misunderstand the purpose of authority and misuse the power that they have. They lord it over those under their charge instead of using it to achieve positive aims for the organisation. They use it to advance themselves and their own careers, and often to make themselves seem more important than they are in the grand scheme of things, rather than as a vehicle to aid others who they see as stepping stones.

Assertiveness is not the same as the exercise of authority and should not be confused with it. It means merely to stand one’s ground, or to express an opinion, whether solicited or not, and not to be a pushover.

Improperly used authority amounts to trampling on the rules and regulations that others are expected to follow. Those who wield it in this way act, and may believe, that they’re above the law.

Those who rely on their authority to do what they want to do also tend to be influenced by the status and power that others hold. This may be one reason why they tend to be tyrannical towards those they deem unworthy of anything else, but who then “kiss up” to those who they think are above them in a real or even imagined way.

It’s an interesting fact, too, that those who are less educated also tend to rely on their authority, perhaps because they lack the knowledge as well as the skill to reason with people. They can’t think of anything to say in the face of a well-reasoned argument, and so they just bark out orders as if to say, “It doesn’t matter what you think. I’m the boss!”

Authority used properly

In many ways, authority should be used as a last resort. That is, people should want to do what you want them to do without you ordering them to do it.

That may seem like a contradiction in terms. Why have authority at all if you’re not going to use it?

The answer may surprise you.

It’s because you’ll get a better result if people fully embrace what you want them to, rather than if they do because they’re too afraid not to.

Why is that?

It’s because when you act out of fear, you consolidate your actions down to what’s essential. You don’t “go the extra mile.” You only do what’s absolutely necessary, and you hold in reserve whatever energies, ability to concentrate, foresight, etc., for whatever you may need to do subsequently to protect yourself from your perceived threat.

CEOs who don’t have to rely on their authority to get things done enjoy the fullest cooperation from those they lead because those people want to follow them. They’re looking for ways to do what you want them to do. They’re not doing the minimum to appease you.

Appeasement is always about looking for the minimum that’s necessary to avert the threat. It’s never about cooperating with it. History teaches us that.

The proper use of authority is to wield it only when there’s no other way; not to appeal to it as a way of life. If you get nothing else from this article, then understand this: The workplace has changed so much that skilled employees no longer have to put up with leaders and managers, at any level, who rely primarily on their authority to get things done. The only people who will are those who agree with you.

Why people won’t follow you

There will be those who to a greater or lesser extent agree with your style of leadership. They won’t be the people who don’t want to follow you. The ones that don’t want to follow you, however, will resist for a variety of reasons.

They don’t think you’re leading

Some people won’t follow you because they don’t think you’re leading. Why would they think that?

One reason has been mentioned already. To them, the constant use of authority isn’t leadership. It’s bullying. It’s “do it because I said so,” which as every parent knows doesn’t work. Adults need valid reasons to do things.

Is it a safety issue, or a cost issue, or a productivity issue? You should be prepared to explain your reasons.

Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, notes that people are more likely to acquiesce in even the most mundane things, such as moving up a place in the queue, if they’re given a reason for doing so.

As the “chief leader,” you need to act like the leader that you are so that people will know why they should follow you. The fact that you’re in a leadership role isn’t enough.

They disagree with you

You may be recognised as the “supreme leader,” but people may not agree with your decisions.

They may have the foresight to see that things will not go well if a particular course is pursued.

You need to listen to the concerns of others. Although you may know more than most, no one has a corner on good ideas. No one knows everything, even if you think you do. If people disagree with you enough to not follow you - to not do what you ask them to, then you need to find out why they object. There may be a very good reason that you’ve overlooked.

It could also be that they’ve misunderstood something, and because they can’t resolve it in their own minds, they balk. Find out what it is. Talk about it. Discuss it. The reluctant employee will be much more willing to do as you ask if you help them to understand than if you appeal to your authority to get it done.

They don’t like your style of leadership

“Birds of a feather flock together” as the saying goes. Those who prefer to use authority to get things done or who agree with your use of it, like to be led by those who do; but the opposite is also true. Those who prefer an egalitarian style will resist those who exercise an authoritarian one. That means that you as a leader must adapt your style according to the people you lead, rather than your personal preference.

This tends not to happen. In the face of opposition, most people dig in their heels and do more of what they have been doing. That may be because they don’t know what else to do, or simply because they don’t want to admit that they hadn’t read the situation correctly.

Those who rely on their authority to get things done are more likely to use punitive measures to get what they want, rather than encouragement. Do what you’re told and nothing happens. Show a bit of initiative, and you risk the authoritarian hammer.

The work-from-home movement gave egalitarians a leg-up, as they already disliked intensely any form of micromanagement. They prefer to be told what to do, and then left to get on with it. In other words, the authoritarian style of leadership doesn’t work with them.

And that’s because egalitarians believe that everyone is equal. They want to know what their responsibilities are and no more. They don’t want you breathing down their necks or timing how long they’re in the loo. And they expect to be told when they do good work as well as when it could’ve been better. A leader - a CEO - who is silent when people do good work, but critical when they need to improve will make people feel that they can’t ever please them, and that they need to watch their backs.

They don’t like you

Everyone wants to be liked. They want to be liked by one or more people, and that’s simply because they, like them, are social beings. Some need only one special friend; others need a group of them.

Of course, there’s nothing that says that people at work have to like you, but it will make getting the job done a lot easier if they do. In any case, why create antagonism where none existed before? It just wastes time and resources, and it can jeopardise the results that you want.

You may be tempted to think that there’s not much you can do about people who don’t like you, except perhaps to move them someplace where your paths don’t cross. And there’s no question that you won’t have the perfect personality chemistry with everyone you meet, but there’s a better way to deal with this. It’s to treat them as professionals and with the utmost respect.

One reason you may not be liked is that people are afraid of you. It doesn’t matter whether that fear is justified or not. When you treat them with respect and defer to their expertise, that helps to remove that fear.

It’s hard to like someone you’re afraid of, and easy to do so with someone who shows respect for you.

They would rather be the leader, even if they think you’re doing it the way they would

Some people want to be in charge, no matter what.

You could be doing exactly what they’d do, but because you’re making the decisions and not them, they won’t follow you. The venue where this is most likely is where politics plays a large part in the dynamics of the workplace. There are those who will spot a weakness in your leadership, and then look for ways to exploit it to their benefit.

 As the CEO, you can’t let this happen. If there are people on your team, or otherwise working in close proximity to you who think that they should be in charge, be mindful that they are looking for the opportunity to take your job. You probably need to help these people out the door.


Because as CEO, you have many more important things to think about. You can’t afford to waste time or energy trying to protect your back, so to speak. You need to be able to devote yourself to running the organisation, and you can’t do that unless everyone is in your corner.

Danger of non-followers

There’s a real danger that non-followers present, and that you shouldn’t take lightly.

They can sow discord among everyone else. They can lower morale by drawing attention to all the things they dislike about you and your methods. They can also demotivate people.

That said, there’s no smoke without fire. If people are that disgruntled about your use of authority, then you may need to take a few steps back to see exactly what you’ve done to incite such ire.

People expect to like their boss, and that includes the CEO. If they don’t think that you’re leading, or they regularly disagree with what you do, or they don’t like you or your style, or they simply want your job, then you must find out what the underlying causes are and fix them. No matter how much you appeal to your authority these problems won’t go away by themselves.

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