| Fourth Quarter 2012 | story by JANA DAWSON, CornerBank, Sr. Vice President, Human Resources & Marketing, Chief Marketing Officer |


Kristi is a 30-something, mid-level employee who coordinates electronic delivery channels for her organization. While she doesn’t have any direct reports, she wields great influence within the company, particularly with those well above her pay grade. She doesn’t have the authority to make purchasing decisions on her own, but her leadership on those issues determines the company’s direction. Welcome to 21st Century organizational management.

If you’ve spent any time reading about generational studies, you know that our workplace is changing rapidly. Today’s younger workers have little use for authority or hierarchy. Th ink about how learning has changed. Back in the day, if you wanted to learn to play the guitar, you signed up for lessons and learned from an expert. Today, if you want to learn to play guitar, you go online, watch a few videos, listen to tips from your peers and take initiative to make it happen. Th at kind of learning mentality flies directly in the face of traditional organizational structure, so it’s no wonder that we see dissension among our work place teams, which, in some cases, span four generations.

We need to make a distinction between exercising authority and exercising leadership. Authority provides protection, direction and order and comes from those in formal authority roles (think CEO and department manager). Leadership is about behaviors or acts that instigate thoughts or actions toward addressing an issue. All of your employees can and should exercise leadership within the organization.

We tend to intertwine the two even though they are distinctly different. Authority brings us comfort because it is a known entity, but true leadership is inherently risky as it involves managing losses and risking casualties.

Kristi sticks her neck out every time she calls the VP to discuss shortcomings in the customer delivery process because, in most organizations, people reward you for delivering to them what they want. What is hard is delivering to them what they need when it is different from what they want. The list of risks is long: friendships, reputation, labels and career.

cartoonSo, why is Kristi comfortable exercising leadership in her organization? Because her CEO is comfortable with Kristi exercising leadership in her organization and her department manager is comfortable with her exercising leadership. They’ve recognized that providing Kristi with that level of autonomy makes her a much more valuable asset to the company. Kristi is much more inclined to respect the CEO, work within her role and take opportunities to advance because she feels that same respect from upper management. Additionally, this respect has to extend to the full peer group. All parties have to work toward the concept of continuous improvement and work together to solve problems versus focusing on blame and retribution when something goes wrong. Th e CEO’s expectation that every employee has the responsibility to intervene to address issues for the common good has to be coupled with an understanding that there is no intent to get someone else in trouble. Th e intent is to solve the problem.

With this culture, the CEO also is exercising leadership rather than exerting his authority and demanding respect solely based on his role. He, too, is taking a risk in that once he has intervened and taken a course off the traditional management path; he has lost some control over the outcome. He is risking his reputation by trusting the leadership of his employees. Recognizing the distinction between exerting authority and fostering leadership and developing that level of trust, top down and side-to-side, is how you build a very different kind of team. Th is team is a culture full of leaders who care enough to take the risks required to make progress on their organization’s most pressing business objectives.

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