Authority vs Leadership

March 30, 2008 at 5:55 am | Posted in Professional Development | 2 Comments
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There is one universal truism in football practice. Coaches will make players run. A lot. It’s just part of what needs to happen to get into shape, and near as I can tell, no player is very excited about it. When I was playing college football, we had a coach who was “old school” and believed in intense conditioning, so we ran. And ran. And ran. Then ran some more. In defense to what we clearly saw as oppression, we had a saying:

“You can run me long, but you can’t run me hard.”

That is one of the clearest ways I know to illustrate the interplay (or lackthereof) between Authority and Leadership. The first part of the saying, “You can run me long”, was an admission that we were, in fact, under their authority. They controlled our scholarships and had the power to kick us off the team if we ever became too insubordinate. But the last part of the saying, “but you can’t run me hard”, was a pledge that they could not break our will. We would find a way to adhere to the letter of the law, but never allow them to get out of it what they really wanted, which was to run us HARD, as well as long.

This is about the best (or the worst, depending on how you look at it) example of Authority without Leadership. Many times in our careers, we long for authority. Most people believe if they just had the authority to do things they way they wanted, success would surely follow. But not so fast. Just because you can tell someone what to do, doesn’t mean they will do it they way that you intend. While you may get someone to follow you to the letter of your law, you will likely none of what you expect in terms of commitment, creativity, energy, and passion.

That is the cold world of Authority when it is absent its compliment: Leadership.

If I had to pick between the two, I would choose to be a Leader rather than one in Authority. First of all, I believe that’s simply the way you should treat people. Second, I think it’s more rewarding. Third, and maybe most important, I believe it is tons more effective. And in terms of career aspirations, true Leaders rarely are out looking for a job. I’ve seen those in Authority get cut at the drop of a hat during a budget crunch. Leaders are usually far too valuable to let go.

When I became a football coach, like all coaches before me, I had to run my kids. But I never forgot the saying we carried around with us when I was a player, and I never wanted my players to feel that way. Unless they were insane, they would never *enjoy* running, but I wanted them to trust me that it was for a reason that would ultimately lead to their benefit. I wanted their hearts as well as their obedience. It takes time and a lot of work to build that kind of relationship. But that is the kind of relationship every leader should strive for, whether in the locker room or the executive meeting room.

How we can work toward building those kinds of relationships will be the subject of many discussions in this forum.

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  1. I really liked this post. I got to reflect back on my ‘glory days’ of running gassers in jr. high and high school for all the sports I participated in and your saying is spot on. It’s funny how that easily translates into real world situations. Not to worry – I’m running HARD!

  2. […] May 2, 2008 at 7:57 pm | In Uncategorized | In a previous post I talked about Authority vs Leadership. Recently I was in a situation where I was being asked to control something over which I did not […]


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