Lead with authority vs influence

At RubyConf AU earlier this year, I caught up with a past workshop attendee, now a staff engineer. They told me their largest struggle is when to lead with authority and when to lead with influence. Like every complex question, the answer is: "it depends." Let's unpack why.

The role of staff engineer is a leadership role in most organisations. Staff engineers don't have direct reports in a people management sense. They lead projects, initiatives, and display leadership in their daily work.

Leading projects and initiatives are examples of leadership from authority. You are in charge of delivering a project, thus you get to tell people what to do! Same goes for a cross-team initiative you're leading to improve developer experience. These are explicit leadership situations. The third case is all about implicit leadership and that's where influence comes in.

Authority is power explicitly assigned to someone over something. If you lead the project, you have authority over matters to do with that project. Same goes for a team you lead.

Influence is the indirect use of power to affect someone, something, or a course of events. It depends on reputation, credibility, or position. With one or more of those, you can influence people and the decisions they make.

These are not exclusive options. A project leader can influence matters relevant to their project that are not directly part of it. Likewise, a person can influence projects and teams over which they have no authority.

So how do we know which to use and when?

It can be personally difficult to use authority when other approaches seem easier. It might feel nicer to couch a need as a casual request, but a boss should not ask a report for favours. If you need someone to perform a particular task, it should be a work request. There's a contract in place between a company and its employees. Work should follow that structure.

Do not use your authority over a project or team as a weapon. The team will feel they have no say in decision making. Share your rationale or motivation, morale, and retention will all decrease.

Authority should only by used appropriately. Do not invoke it when that authority does not exist or does not extend to the matter at hand. This is straightforward and most people can follow this easily. Break that rule and you're a bully.

This rigid approach (using authority for all things you explicitly have authority over) leaves influence for all those places where you don't have authority. Influence applies better to implicit leadership patterns. Like role modelling behaviour, or supporting colleagues in their own projects and initiatives. Making the case for long-term changes in culture or process requires influence.

It can feel hard to know when to use authority instead of leaning on influence. When you're not sure, ask yourself if you have the authority to get what you need done. If so, use it. This doesn't need to be rude or unkind. Using explicit power structures is better for everyone. They have explicit means of redress if something goes wrong.

Make this boundary clear for yourself and it will make you a more effective leader.

Would you like to know more?

Receive our monthly newsletter