Pointing the Way Forward
Sometimes, when I think about collaboration, images come up of people rolling up their sleeves and working cooperatively and harmoniously towards a common goal. But, these images, of course, are not the whole picture. Not far beneath this simple narrative lies the more telling narrative of a continuous pattern of problems requiring solutions.
Problem-solving is the name of the game, so to speak, in any endeavor, and a wide variety of emotional experiences are to be expected in any creative undertaking that involves technology, other people and the merciless winds of fate.
I often wonder whether collaboration is even possible between people without at least a little bit of “surrender” to outside forces, life events, and creative challenges. Especially the commitment to surrender to the influence other people. Perhaps at least a small amount of humility is called for, the willingness to find the value in other people and the desire to make that value known to them. This is an important quality, especially in those with formal authority who have the power to affect everyone else in their sphere of influence.
Many books and fields of study cover the promises and perils of organizations, workplaces and group projects, and, with few exceptions, most scholars agree that the style of leadership in an organization sets a specific tone for the whole operation, whether the leadership is a committee or an individual. In my experience and according to virtually all research in this area, the most basic standard for effective leadership involves the recognition and genuine appreciation of other people’s value and personal experience within a community.
Two Kinds of Authority
Of course, this is a challenging task for “leaderless” situations such as committees and organizations with democratic structures. The questions of “who decides” and “whose values” become murky in this arrangement, and can become especially problematic if a decision-making body fails to take into account the presence of informal authority in the organization.
I learned the concept of informal authority from a book on Adaptive Leadership, which was one of the required texts for a course in organizational change I took during my graduate studies. This book is an excellent study of adaptive leaders in times of change, and instructs the reader through the various stages and tasks of leading change efforts in organizations. The primary author and originator of this framework is Ronald A. Heifetz. The book is co-authored by Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky.
Heifetz makes a distinction between two types of authority- formal and informal. Regardless of whether the political structure of an organization, institution (or music group) is democratic, top-down or somewhere in between, any number of individuals in the community can have more “pull” or informal authority than the others, and may consequently exercise a more active influence on both process and outcomes. The presence of informal authority in organizational life is neither good nor bad, but it is an aspect that needs to be acknowledged, because the impact of informal authority on culture, morale and outcomes can be great indeed.
Formal authority, of course, is more clearly delineated. Whether emanating from a group or an individual, formal authority involves the official power to set the tone, establish and promote specific values, and influence decisions and outcomes irrespective of the degree of input from others in the organization or group.
In the context of making the album “Eleventh Hour Shine”, strictly speaking, I possessed formal authority. Regardless of the degree of inclusiveness I may have chosen to adopt in decision-making or how much artistic and material assistance I may have received from others in moving forward with the mission, I alone had the formal authority to put the brakes on the project at any time and to have the last word. Part of the reason, of course, is that I invested my own money in making the album happen. Thus, the risk and responsibility for moving the project to completion was ultimately mine.
But, a closer look at these kinds of situations reveals that formal authority can only go so far in getting to the finish line in a project or building a sustainable business or organization. As Heifitz has stated, to be truly legitimate and effective, formal authority must be accompanied by informal authority. Informal authority simply means that you have people’s trust. It means that your influence is trustworthy because you have demonstrated respect for people and your commitment to align your decisions and ideas with the mission and shared values of your community.
But, how does a person with formal authority arrive at the fulcrum of influence and trust characterized by informal authority? Is it the product of personal development? The outcome of being inculcated with certain values? Or is it simply a personality thing? Attempting to answer this question requires at least a glimpse into different leadership theories because in some styles of leadership, according to theory, the “leader” is not only the actor but the acted-upon. Not just a catalyst or agent, but a fluid, permeable conduit for the agency of others.