Whether you are the one who is experiencing burnout or whether you can’t understand why people burn out under your leadership, I’m going to venture to guess it’s most likely a misunderstanding of a very simple, but profound, concept. The more experience I gain in leadership, the more I guide my decisions by this principle: The level of authority must match they level of responsibility in any given leadership role. Most people would probably agree with this important principle, but enacting it can be very tricky. If you are out of whack on the side of authority or responsibility, you will be going nowhere fast.

You may be the type that is naturally responsible. People in stores ask you questions because they assume you work there. Do you ever feel like you have been given a weight of responsibility with no power to fulfill your responsibility? Do you hesitate to take on new projects because of the responsibility it brings with it? You may not realize that in a healthy situation, there has to be a point at which you are given authority over the things for which you are responsible. Authority is the decision-making power over an specified arena. So, if you are feeling consistently forced to deal with issues in a certain way that is contrary to your authentic leadership style, perhaps you either need less responsibility or more authority. It could be that your values are not in line with the values of the organization. In this case, you need less responsibility. But likely, the leader over you just needs to understand the responsibility/authority paradigm. This could be an issue of clarity that can easily be rectified if you are willing to initiate the conversation. You may find that you have already been given the authority but, for whatever reason, you are not accessing it like you could. Another leader might be able to know how to use authority responsibly and show you how it’s done. Sometimes responsible people need to step up and verbalize what they need to do a job right. Otherwise, burnout looms, and hardworking people become embittered. Who is responsible for your own well being and your own ability to do a job well? You are.

On the flip side, you may be the type of person that naturally takes charge of a situation. You do what you think is best and ask questions later. You may not readily sympathize with people who feel that they are being given too little authority, because you tend to assume authority. There are times when this is necessary and acceptable, but there are times when assuming authority can step on a lot of toes and annihilate potential allies. When delegating tasks, you probably delegate responsibility by saying, “If this goes right, I’ll know who to thank. If this goes wrong, I’ll know who to find.” But if you easily pass off responsibility without also giving someone the scepter of authority (decision making power) the person remains powerless to do what you have asked of him. This is the classic case of bad delegation. In effect, it communicates that you don’t trust that person to make decisions on his own and it causes him to act more as a slave than a trusted leader. In this way you have the potential to burn people out like the candles on a birthday cake. Even if you have a healthy understanding of authority, you need to make it abundantly clear to those with whom you work. They may not be as skilled in wielding authority and need to be coached in this area.

So it’s like a teeter totter with responsibility on one side and authority on the other side. Those who hang heavy on responsibility are saddled with all kinds of burdens that are not theirs to bear. They feel bad for asking for more authority, so they don’t get it. Those who have great authority are there because they have sought it out, but they may find it difficult to retain followers if they do not understand how to delegate not only responsibility, but also authority.

This principle can be extended into all kinds of life situations from friendships to parenting. “To those who much is given, the same will be required.”

  1. Cathy says:

    I think I have the authority to just say this: I love you Leigh!

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