Accountability, Rank and Authority

We assume people who hold rank in a hierarchy are accountable. Rank is rarely the measure of accountability. Accountability in networks is more likely to be found with social constructed authority.

Accountability in hierarchy can be attenuated by the distance of people in positions of power from customers, employees or others stakeholders. Our expectation that the buck stops with those with highest rank increasingly disappoints us. Without trust, those in hierarchical positions can continue to operate and exercise power.

Authority is earned and lost in networks

However, authority is earned in networks. Authority is not given or imposed.  The status of authority as a social construct means accountability to the network is built in.  

Importantly, in a network authority will often attach to the most authoritative figure who is a part of the conversation, whether they seek it or not.  Nilofer Merchant described this phenomenon well recently highlighting that leaders who step up to engage in social conversations will be expected to act. The reach of this expectation will run to their supposed authority, well beyond their power or their rank. In a societal conversation, leaders may be expected to act on their own power and influence their industry or society. By chosing to bring their rank to the conversation, they start with an expectation and an authority. The challenge is what they do next.

An authority who fails to exercise their status will lose it. Any authority that becomes unreliable, malicious or inauthentic will quickly lose their status. Losing the authority that is the underpinning of influence and action, is the swift form of accountability found in network relationships that depend on trust.

As we lose our trust in hierarchies, we will go looking for trusted authorities in networks. Should they fail us, we will change them rapidly.

This post is the second in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The posts deal with:

The Magic of Authority

Authority comes when we are ready to lead and ready to deliver for others

Recently I was talking with a colleague in a mentoring conversation.  This individual was describing her surprise that she was being asked to lead a piece of collaborative work that she had initiated.  A group that she had brought together were deferring to her authority.  Because she had convened the group, chosen the individuals and had the compelling vision for the work, the group were ready to follow.  It was an adjustment for someone who saw themselves as simply as the coordinator to realise that they had earned the authority to lead others more senior.

At the heart of this moment, is a key insight.  The magic of authority is this – you have the authority because others judge you ready.  Others chose to follow because they trust in your vision, insight, capabilities, experience or approach.  Their trust and their followership means that you are ready to lead, whether you know that yet or not.

You can be thrust into a rank you are unfit to hold or where you are unsuitable to deliver on the expectations of the position.  We have all experienced the terror of those first moments of a new and challenging role. Rank is a gift and some times it is bestowed in error.

Authority doesn’t work that way.  Unlike rank, it doesn’t come as a gift from others.  Authority is earned.  If you have authority, you are ready to exercise it.

So next time you are wondering how you ended up in charge, remember that you earned it.  Go show your new followers that their instincts are right.  

That leadership is the least that they expect from you.