by Michael Holland    

Do you have legitimate authority?

What a great question.  Malcolm Gladwell in his intriguing book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, brings us perspective that we should know—or may already know—but that we often overlook.  This perspective is contained in a principle of legitimacy and helps us to answer the question stated earlier.   Gladwell states:

“When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters first – and foremost – how they behave.”

His rendition of the principle of legitimacy goes something like this. . .

  1. Be Heard – People who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice, and that if they speak up, they will be heard.
  2. Be Predictable – The authority has to be predictable.  There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.
  3. Be Fair – The authority has to be fair.  It can’t treat one group differently than another.

Key to understanding the principle is to know that the lens you are using to gauge the legitimacy is tainted as you look down upon your employees.   You cannot understand exactly how they see the world and perceive your leadership.  Sure, you were a lowly employee once, maybe even just a couple of months ago.  But when you passed through the magical curtain of management, you can no longer see everything your employees see.  And it’s their perception of reality regarding being able to be heard, seeing your predictable behavior, and sensing your fairness in treating others that gives you legitimate authority.

It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do.  You must realize that your behaviors model your true intentions.

And you know the principle of legitimacy is true.  Just look at your boss and reflect on 1, 2 & 3 above.

Coaching Thoughts – For You and Your Peers

  • When a leader does not have legitimate authority based on the three points listed, where does their authority come from?
  • What makes other kinds of authority illegitimate? What might a workplace under the direction of a leader with illegitimate authority look like?
  • What lens are you using to gauge your leadership legitimacy? Is it working, or is it maybe time to try a new one?