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When Responsibility Exceeds Authority

In today’s business environment, leadership ability trumps management authority.

Earlier in my career, I left publishing at one point and worked for several years overseeing user communications for the large technical data center of a Fortune 25 company. At one point, in a corporate restructuring all too familiar in today’s world, a decision was made to shut down our entire operation.

The good news was that all of us had six months warning. The bad news was, of course, that we all had to look for other jobs. Recently I was reminded of a conversation I had then with my boss at the time, who served as something of a mentor to me then. As we discussed an opportunity I was considering, he made an observation I have always remembered.

“Keep in mind,” he said. “that as your career progresses, your responsibility will always exceed your authority.”

It’s a remark I’ve found myself returning to over the years. Recently, in conversations with foodservice directors around the country, I have found it continues to provide food for thought.

Early in one’s work life, jobs and their responsibility levels are narrowly defined. One’s ability to make sound judgments and decisions—and the authority to make them—are similarly limited. Young people often grouse about this, but common sense tells you it can seldom be any other way. An employee needs to demonstrate sound judgment over time to earn management’s trust and a measure of responsibility. That is how careers progress.

In mid-career the issue gets more complicated, especially in today’s business environments. As organizations have grown leaner, responsibilities often expand well beyond what can effectively be managed without additional resources or more authority even as these are not available. It also becomes much harder to find staff with good “fits” for the much broader task responsibilities fewer people have to bear. It further complicates the delegation of both responsibility and authority.

This is also becoming a larger issue in an era of business consolidation. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about corporate acquisitions, the formation of healthcare “systems,” or just larger organizations with leaner structures. The typical management response very often is to move to “matrix” type environments where traditional authority hierarchies are replaced with cross-functional teams. In theory, this should work more efficiently.

In practice, though, it can easily cloud issues of responsibility and authority. Someone in authority will always call for specific results, but rely on them to be accomplished by teams of people who have many other priorities and workloads that are ignored in the matrix context. Because of this, team members will usually try to retain whatever authority they have, but shift any new workload responsibilities to others. Management dictums like “Just get it done” can be an abdication of responsibility in such situations.

A mark of good upper management or administration is one that keeps both functions in balance. One director I know, whose administrator seems to fall into this category, put it this way:

“My responsibility is to run my department. When I make decisions based on our organization’s values, I find I seldom go wrong. When my boss has found it necessary to take issue with something I’ve done, his attitude has been, ‘You made a mistake. But you have the freedom to make small mistakes as long as they become lessons so you don’t make big mistakes later.’”

That balance can sometimes be sadly lacking in less well run operations, especially those with “revolving door” management.

Not too long ago, a highly respected FSD I know described his frustration with a recent, rapid succession of administrators. Each one, he said, “saw it as necessary to question even small decisions, many of them longstanding best practices we’ve established here, rather than admit a lack of familiarity with our issues.

“When you’ve earned a high level of trust from multiple administrations in the past, having that trust suddenly questioned and having to re-justify your decisions...makes you ask whether you want to continue working for the organization. It’s demoralizing.”

Finally, there is also the reality my own boss spoke of. As one gains more responsibility, one often finds he or she has less and less authority to just “make it happen” by mandate.

That is when true leadership—not meetings and dictums—brings teams together to get things done. It is influencing people to want to be on the same page and to respect each other’s roles. In that context, we grant “permission-based” authority to others in the interest of common goals.

You can’t do much to improve the quality of your administration, but every good leader and manager can strive to improve the balance of authority, responsibility and permission-based leadership among those on his or her own team.  

That is your responsibility as a manager, even though it almost always will exceed your direct authority.

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