How Power, Authority, and Obligation Impact Your Leadership Abilities

King Louis XVI of FranceToday’s post is by Allen Laudenslager and Bryan Neva Sr. You can learn more about them at the end of the post.

“Noblesse Oblige” is an old French phrase that literally translates as “nobility obligates.” It means that those who have power and authority, or who are privileged, rich or famous have a moral responsibility to display honorable, charitable, and exemplary behavior towards those less fortunate or to those dependent on them.

In other words, whoever claims to be noble must conduct themselves nobly. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. summed it up nicely when he said: every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.

The idea of “Noblesse Oblige” was created out of enlightened self-interest. The nobility had serfs who were dependent on them for land to farm, a place to live and protection from bandits. In medieval times all the land belonged to the nobility; the enlightened noble recognized that while he owned the land, without someone to plant and harvest the noble had no income. Seeing to the wellbeing of his serfs was his “noble obligation.”

The good old days of companies treating their employees as their most valuable assets have been set aside in favor of expecting them to work harder for the same pay and fewer benefits. In place of rewards they’re told they should be glad they still have a job. Corporate management has developed an entitlement mentality (like the old French nobility) by remembering their privileges (power, prestige, perks, and pay) but forgetting their obligations to their employees.  So what does this mean for you?

Loyalty always starts with the person who has the power and authority and is earned not given. Power is the ability to grant or withhold rewards, and authority is the power to influence the behavior of a person with less power. And there’s no authority without a counterbalancing responsibility.

Some use their power and authority altruistically; unfortunately, many others use it capriciously or unfairly. Lord John Acton (1834—1902, British historian and moralist) famously wrote: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So what tends to happen is that those in power begin to believe their own press releases and act as if their power is a natural right and their authority is to be unquestioned. After all, they must be right or they wouldn’t have been granted the authority in the first place, right?

The key to avoiding falling into the entitlement trap is simply by learning a little good ol’ fashioned humility. Start by walking over to your company’s customer service center and imagine there’s no one there to answer the phones, to take orders or to solve problems. You’re not going to sell anything.

Next, walk down to your company’s shipping and receiving department and watch the employees loading and unloading trucks. Now close your eyes and pretend that those workers aren’t there… your products are just sitting on the docks and the trucks are not getting loaded. How much money will you make if you don’t ship your products to customers?

It’s easy to think of all these workers as not being important because almost anyone could do these types of jobs. Answering the phones or loading and unloading trucks are cheap but also very critical. In other words, the labor costs are inexpensive but the work is valuable.

Now extrapolate these examples out to your entire organization. How much value are all your other employees contributing to your long-term success? Who really produces and who is overhead? Enlightened self-interest should tell you that without workers you’d have no income.

So while you may not be willing to pay much for a person working in customer service or shipping and receiving, enlightened self-interest should tell you that a relatively low paid employee might be critical to your long-term success and you should begin to treat that worker with the respect their contribution, not their cost, deserves.

– Allen Laudenslager is retired technical writer, defense industry manager, businessman, and Army veteran. He writes on management, business practices, and ethics. He currently lives with his wife in Prescott, AZ.

– Bryan Neva, Sr. is an electronics engineer with an MBA and has over 20 years of engineering, business management, and direct customer handling experience. He’s a Navy veteran and has worked in the defense, medical device and aerospace industries. He currently lives with his wife in Southern California.

3 Responses to “How Power, Authority, and Obligation Impact Your Leadership Abilities”

  1. Hammed Olufadi says:

    With authority comes responsibility. It is a misuse of authority to treat your workers like they a piece of disposable furniture. A little respect will endear one to his staff and make one more appreciative of their contribution to the success of your organization. Great article.

    • John S Wren says:

      A good reminder. Summed up in the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”

      Unfortunately this has been changed for some today into “do unto others before they can do unto you.” 🙂

      Allen Greenspan long time chair of the Federal Reserve system has said he expected enlightened self-interest to cause the large financial institutions that were doing the exotic financial derivitives to have been much more careful, but there was a complete failure of the type of management experienced in the past as you point out in your article.

      The problem is the giant size of some of these corporations. There have been psychological tests done that demonstrate most of us will do things as a part of a group we’d never do directly on our own. That’s why I think it’s been a mistake to bail out the large corporations. My plan, stated at the time when the bail outs were first being considered, let large corporations go under, let a thousand new businesses take their place!

      This is what I wrote back in 2008, I still think we’d be much, much better off today if we’d done something along these lines:

  2. Jerry McKenzie says:

    Allen and Bryan,

    Good stuff you have here. Unfortunately, I think the big shots will lose their heads (or position) before they empathize with their employees. On a related note:

    Allen, if you haven’t read Ian Welsh before, I think you might like his stuff.

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