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3 Tips to Practice Leadership & Navigate Authority Dynamics

Rahul Daswani, CAL’s Faculty & Country Advisor for Singapore; MPP, Harvard University

  1. Understand the Role You are Playing, and Distinguish Authority from Leadership

Everyone has the ability to choose whether and when to exercise leadership, and there are some major implications to this fact. A leader cannot be the one charging ahead in all situations. A good leader knows when to step back, acknowledge that he or she is not the best person to shepherd the group in some situations, and let the collective wisdom of the crowd determine who should lead the way to the group’s final destination. Here are some tips to exercise leadership effectively:

In Asia, authority is commonly used and deeply respected. People in positions of authority often order others to do things in a particular way and don’t listen to objections or counterpoints. Similarly, people often look to authority figures for guidance in times of confusion. This frequently happens in families, as when the head of the family makes key decisions about the welfare of the family or even about individual family members. It happens often at the workplace too: I’ve heard the phrase “the boss will decide” many times in response to uncertain situations.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. If we understand that authority has obligations and limitations, we can stop being intimidated by it. Authority figures are expected to provide direction, protection, and order, and for that reason they are limited in their choices. What distinguishes leadership from authority is that leaders strive to understand and identify new directions that make sense for their groups, and they articulate those directions clearly. If we all take part in defining our path, we can all proceed with a collective foresight that will help and protect the group in the long run. For that reason, a collaborative approach to leadership is the most effective way to steer a given group.

I tested this out when I was a junior team-member in one of my previous roles, in government. Though the mandate of my department was to allocate finite resources based on current requirements, I felt it was important to think about the long term, and I made a case for adapting our workplace to facilitate an upcoming demographic shift. The first thing I did was make sure that my top objective was consistent with the larger group’s mission—to ensure that we continued to thrive, even amid future changes. Having assured the group of my motivations, I obtained data regarding the scale of the upcoming changes and established reasons for why it was important to act sooner rather than later. Finally, I made concrete recommendations that were supported by experts I had found within the organization,
so as not to come across as too radical. In cultures where authority is deeply respected, we need to master the art of navigating authority dynamics by using smart and selective leadership. Because I was a junior team-member, I actually had more freedom to exercise leadership, by testing current narratives and proposing alternatives, than my seniors in positions of authority, who needed to reassure the other employees that we could manage the transition well.

  1. Share the Work of Leadership by Getting More People Involved

In my story above, a crucial piece of the puzzle was reaching out to a variety of people who could support me. I found the data I needed by asking colleagues who I should speak with, and by meeting these people face to face in an organization that typically relied on emails and phone calls. This allowed me to assuage their concerns directly and immediately, and to let them know both my intentions for my
research and how their data would be used.

Within the group of people I spoke with, I identified who might have concerns or doubts about my approach and found suitable people to talk with about how to address those concerns. It was important for me to identify all the relevant factions—meaning the different groups of people who had stakes in this difficult but important work. Once we have identified all the factions in a given situation, we can formulate strategies to engage or isolate the different groups, depending on our objectives. It is especially important to cultivate allies and confidants: allies are people who have similar goals to ours,
while confidants have no stake in the work but are useful people to test ideas with and listen to our frustrations.

In my case, my allies were the people who had done the quantitative research on our demographic projections and wanted us to be prepared for the upcoming challenges. There were also some older employees who wanted changes to be made in the company’s training and learning approaches so that they could be equipped with the skills required to deal with the upcoming challenges; I made sure to include their voices in my presentation. My confidants were some ex-colleagues who provided me with the objective advice and feedback I needed. They had no reason to hold back their opinions, and they helped me calm down by giving me space to vent about my frustrations with prickly individuals; they also proposed useful approaches to try with different types of people.

  1. Take Multiple Perspectives from All Angles

Exercising leadership almost always involves looking at a situation from multiple perspectives. Earlier in this chapter, I talked about understanding ourselves better, which helps us to understand the roles we default to playing and to identify ways to go beyond those roles. In situations involving other people, it is also important to understand the perspectives they bring—what is important to them and how they view the situation.

When I approached my colleagues who had done the quantitative research, they were concerned about my overall message, as well as the fact that their research had not yet been seen by senior manage-
ment. How might it be perceived? Understanding these concerns helped me suggest options that they felt comfortable with. Rather than citing their research directly, I offered to run my key ideas by them first, giving them the opportunity to provide input and ensuring that my message would complement the results they would later show to senior management. I also made sure to give credit to the research team, in a manner that they were comfortable with. If I had cited their research without understanding what their concerns were or hadn’t given them the opportunity to address those concerns, they might have severely undermined my presentation, putting my recommendations at risk.

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