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When A CEO’s ‘Position Authority’ Gets In The Way

Being top dog is part of the job—but authoritarian overload can clamp down on curiosity, creativity and innovation.

By default, CEOs have position authority – they are the senior-most executives in their organizations who serve as agents on behalf of their boards, investors or sometimes themselves as owners. They are responsible for establishing direction and setting goals and are ultimately accountable for an organization’s success or failure. Being CEO of any organization, big or small, is a challenging job that requires leadership. Sometimes leadership demands effective use of authority such as making tough decisions on competing strategic alternatives. Most often, however, it requires building and empowering a senior team, tapping into their collective talents, creativity, insights and intelligence, and transforming this into a laser-focus towards achieving a shared purpose that employees want to be a part of.

Overused Position Authority

In our work with executive teams we seldom observe CEOs who purposefully rely on their position authority as a primary means of leading. It is quite rare to hear authority-focused comments such as “Do it because I said so” or “I used to run sales, so this is how we are going to approach this customer.” However, we do sometimes witness CEOs unintentionally use their position power to coerce, convince, or intervene with their direct reports and other employees. There are a few common and often related root causes for these overused authority mishaps: stress, worldview bias and avoidance.

Stress: Stress can challenge even the most well-meaning leaders. When CEOs find themselves juggling too many important issues, are faced with significant declines in organizational performance or begin to feel insecure about a particular issue, stress can impact how they interact with others. A range of emotions can ensue, including diminished curiosity, creativity, objectivity and empathy. In fact, many studies suggest that high stress causes us to focus more on relieving the stress than thinking through longer-term implications and ramifications of our actions.[i]

Worldview Bias: All leaders have their own unique worldview formed by background, education, experience and many other factors. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that, at times, we unintentionally let this worldview seep into our interactions with others. Sometimes when CEOs engage with direct reports individually or as an executive team, they subtly use their position authority to convince others that their point of view is the right one rather than engaging in healthy debate. These subtleties might appear as a slightly raised voice or more serious tone or taking over a discussion with detailed explanations that rationalize their points of view.

Avoidance: Avoidance of uncomfortable or challenging issues can also cause CEOs to unintentionally overuse their position authority. For example, a CEO who recognizes that one of his direct reports is holding the executive team back might avoid or delay dealing with the issue because of other important priorities. And, when productively confronted by other direct reports, the CEO might deflect or lash out rather than engage or simply explain their point of view—e.g., “your department is also getting in the way!”

Avoiding the Position Authority Trap

Being a CEO is a challenging and complex job that requires finesse. CEOs need to be authentic and lead in manner that they feel best meets the needs of their organizations, but they owe it to their teams to be consistent—at least, most of the time. This means that how they use their position authority should not be a surprise. Below are a few suggestions for how to avoid the position authority trap.

Share Philosophy: There is no doubt most organizations are not and should not be run as democracies. Position authority has its place and sometimes the CEO just needs to make the tough decisions. The best way to get this across to the team is to engage the team in a discussion about the CEO’s leadership philosophy and style and how he/she will likely use position authority and how they will lead most of the time. It is equally important to engage the team in a dialogue about how to approach the CEO when he/she drifts from this philosophy. For example, is the CEO comfortable with a direct report challenging him/her in a team meeting or in private?

Understand Stress Triggers: As we have mentioned in many previous articles, self-awareness is a very important leadership trait. To be effective, CEOs—or really, any leader—need to be aware of what triggers a stress reaction and what the reaction looks like to others. Some CEOs will become hyperactive and aggressive; others will become more reserved or even withdrawn; and still others will keep it all inside and put on a brave face. No one is perfect and stress will sometimes overcome a particular moment but CEOs should strive to recognize their stress triggers so they can maintain a consistent leadership philosophy.

Be Open and Honest: All CEOs have bad days and sometimes they overuse their position authority, but the great ones are consistent and when they’re not, they disclose their challenges and faults to their teams—e.g., “I blew it by circumventing the executive hiring process. I just didn’t want to deal with Bob’s reaction. I won’t let that happen again.” Humility goes a long way in building a great executive team.

Position authority is not a bad thing. In fact, CEOs are hired to direct and steer their organizations. It is just very important for them to integrate position authority with building and empowering their executive teams and maintain consistency. This ensures consistency and a level of healthy curiosity and innovation that can co-exist productively.


[i] Produced for the Director, Net Assessment Office of the Secretary of Defense, “The Psychophysiological Effects of Stress: National Leadership” (November 2009)


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