We may dictate authority, but we cannot impose legitimacy. The latter can only be won by convincing the hearts and minds. While authority is a matter of titles and organizational structures, the art of mobilizing your teams around your goals is a question of legitimacy. It may apply not only to individuals in relation to the positions they occupy, but also to departments with regards to the assignments they manage. In this case, the legitimacy of a department is reflected by the one of each of its leaders as well as how relevant the experience of its teams is, to ensure the credibility of the promised results.
The mistake to avoid is to assume that the supremacy of your technical skills and unerring execution of your work are the only guarantee of your success when joining a new job or taking new responsibilities in hands. We often talk about the first 100 days of getting into a new responsibility as a trial period for managers, leaders and even presidents of countries to convince that they are the right men in the right place. This period is certainly not a test of their abilities or skills, but rather a great exercise to establish their legitimacy. During this period, they would certainly apprehend the organizational constraints or the surrounding hostilities, but they especially need to deeply understand the political considerations and how they can build-up and convince all the stakeholders about their legitimacy.
We are often witnessing situations with arguments like ‘I’m older than you, and you must listen to me’ or ‘I am the head of the department, and that’s why I am the one who decide’ or ‘ I’m your manager, and you should do what I require you to do!’. Those types of authoritarian discussions are very common and omnipresent whatever the maturity of the organization or the situation in which we find ourselves. The effect may be the simple rejection or rebellion. At best, such discussions can create a possible fleeting conviction if the interlocutors are obedient to authority that bypasses their reason and rationality. Certainly, to assert his authority in such an explicit way is not often the case in organizations with managerial maturity but it is the case in many family structures and in businesses going through a massive period of change. In any case, the discomforts of authority can also be very implicit in very mature organizational structures in which the unsaid, the machinery of manipulation and political negotiations can be very fierce.
At whatever hierarchical level, transforming authority into leadership is dependent on managers’ qualities and especially the way through which they set-up their legitimacy.
The levers of legitimacy can be multiple and complex. They include rational levers, like skills, abilities, quality of past experience, and success in such experiences. Then, managers also have relational and emotional levers, like charisma, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Finally, policy levers are related to internal networks of influence and how managers engage to create a sense of legitimacy through ‘social proof’. It is, in this case, a question of reputation and personal branding that spreads through the mouth to ear. Rational, relational, and political legitimacy levers are to be used subtly. It is up to you to judge the dosage based expectations or hidden agendas of your stakeholders.