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Katherine Tyler Scott
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Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

Authority does not equal leadership

Question: Egypt's unfolding political crisis raises a broader question: Can an entrenched, powerful leader, one who has resisted change, successfully lead a country or an organization in a different direction if circumstances suddenly demand it? Or is it necessary to bring in new leadership?

President Mubarak has used his position to exercise authority, not leadership. His establishment and maintenance of control over his followers rather than control with them has resulted in an environment of fear and anger ripe for the unbridled expression of rage and violence. The arrogance and sense of entitlement that such authority figures manifest is a denial of basic human need. The striving for freedom and the universal quest for meaning and making a difference in life cannot be indefinitely denied. Instead of using his authority to create a representative government in which power is shared and voice and vote is given to all of the people, Mubarak grasped and held onto it as if it were a scarce commodity limited to a select few.

When the exercise of power is based on a model of scarcity, it breeds competition not cooperation; self-interest rather than community; insularity rather than transparency; an either/or view of reality; and the reinforcement of top-down decision-making. The irony in this model is that the authority loses touch with the reality of the lives of those he or she is supposed to serve and to lead. She or he become isolated from a fuller truth and is cut off from the information needed in order to govern well. The authority feels less and less in control, and his or her grip becomes tighter and tighter. Simultaneously, the resentment of those treated as subservient festers, building to an explosion that lacks a clear precipitant.

This dynamic shows the fragile nature of the relationship between a controlling authority and those being controlled; it is a relationship that will not likely withstand the certain upheaval of sudden change. Those who have felt disenfranchised before the change are not likely to be patient or conciliatory, neither will they be competent in renegotiating a new relationship, especially without the benefit of education and training.

Fueling fear in a culture of oppression is dangerous--it can legitimize aggression. but most adapt by being passive. The problem is that passivity can evolve into helplessness, helplessness undermines efficacy, and the loss of efficacy equates to a loss of confidence and the power to change things. This cycle shows the consequences of long-term dependency on an authority to decide and direct everything. It sets up a pattern of coercion and capitulation. When the time comes to challenge the coercive authority, as is happening in Egypt right now, those who have been oppressed are inclined to resort to the same behaviors as their oppressor. The danger of responding in the manner in which they have been treated is always present--evident with language like, "Do what we say or else!" And, "We know what's best." One of the casualties of the power-over model is the loss of adaptive capacities to manage the high levels of frustration and anxiety that accompany change.

Ultimately, the authority to lead comes from those who choose to follow. When there is a loss of trust, new leadership will be needed; but in order to break out of an entrenched cycle of abuse of power, there will need to be a time of transition during which leader and followers learn to exercise power in thoughtful, constructive responsible and inclusive ways.

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By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  February 1, 2011; 3:25 PM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership , Followership , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: It's not smart to act as though you're indispensable | Next: It's impossible to change direction without support


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Without a doubt President Mubarak is using power as a means of domination rather than leadership. Another panelist had made the comment that, while his authoritative rule is respected / given due consideration by foreign authorities, his disconnect with his people has caused an entirely different relationship with them. A leader in his position requires concensus for effective rule, not domination. A reconnection, and organized enactment / effective communication of policy change would be required for this administration to succeed. This appears to be outside the scope of the current administration, which is often described as 'insular' and 'unyielding.' The rise of a new administration could allow the same level of international regard, while being much more connected with the daily struggle for survival of his people. The two should not be exclusive.

Posted by: M_Lindsay_10 | February 4, 2011 1:07 PM
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It has been evident for many years that President Mubarak has lost the connection with his constituents. As soon as a leader allows these relations to dissolve, he faces a long and difficult journey to restore them –if restoration is even a priority for him. The vehemence with which the protestors have demonstrated shows just how far these leader-follower ties have soured. As presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns notes, the crux of the argument lies in the leader’s motives – is he in a quest for individual advancement or is he genuinely concerned about advancing the collective interests. If the leader’s motives are less than benevolent, resentment festers until it is released in a drastic upheaval, which Ms. Scott addresses in her piece.

At this point, the symbol of President Mubarak has been irreparably tainted in the eyes of the people. Even though he may propose drastic reforms, the distrust between the people and the government bode ill for future coexistence. As evidenced by Mohamed ElBaradei’s rejection of the government’s offer to enact constitutional reform, the people will not desist in their protests until there is a political change or they are forcibly subdued. The arrogance and ruthlessness by which President Mubarak served ultimately destroyed his relationships beyond resolution. Though –in some situations– a leader may be able to recover from past wrongs to set a new course, President Mubarak’s alleged human rights violations, rampant corruption, and disregard for those living in poverty likely has sealed his fate.

Posted by: MarkBrundage | February 3, 2011 12:19 PM
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President Mubarak definitely shows the difference between leadership and authority. He has used violence to enforce his position. This monopoly has reached its end; the people's actions show untenability of the situation.
It is true that Egypt's population has learned about power from their President. Therefore their actions are likely to mirror those of Mubarak. However, as was described, the growing availability of social media, and other forms of communication and education means that new ideas can enter in and might allow for a less authoritarian government to rise up.
The power Mubarak wields is undermined by the internet. The kind of unification of the people against unwanted leaders will continue to be displayed as the internet continues to grow and disseminate information. Hopefully the transformations initiated thusly will be peaceful and lead to more fair societies.

Posted by: alexdobranich | February 2, 2011 11:17 PM
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This article is interesting because it examines the nuanced differences between the ideas of power, authority, and leadership. While they are often defined similarly, they mean different things. Authority is just power exercised, and power is essentially a reflection of one's institutional position. Leadership, on the other hand, is not indicative of any particular position, but is the exercise of non-coercive influence.

This does not mean, however, that the entire nation need agree with (or even participate in) the governing process. Rather, President Mubarak exercised leadership through influencing his subordinates, the army, and other major Egyptian positions. Much of that was likely not coercive, but transactional – if a minister is willing to promote and execute a certain policy, he might be rewarded with a higher governmental position. Thus, it is not his leadership which is lacking, but a moral failing in the end goal of his leadership. We might call this bad leadership, but only because it led to deplorable conditions for the Egyptian people, not because it was badly executed (after all, Mubarak was a very effective leader within the government for 30 years). Of course, the end seems to be the bolstering of his own power, not the quality of life for his own people. This is where our problem is, and where other potential leaders could take a lesson.

What Mubarak did well was to establish himself in a position of power and exercise that authority. Yet this is in many ways necessary but not sufficient for effectively ruling the people. The other thing that is needed – and the thing that Mubarak lacked – is a transcendent goal focused on the people, not on oneself.

Perhaps Mubarak could have looked to one of America's greatest presidents, George Washington, for a lesson in leadership. One of Washington's greatest acts of leadership was giving up power after just two terms. President Mubarak could not bring himself to respect a goal higher than himself acted through his leadership, and after thirty years of bolstering his own power, he is feeling the consequences.

Posted by: JonEndean | February 2, 2011 6:45 PM
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I think that the key to whether a powerful leader can truly lead a country in a new direction, if circumstances demand it, depends on, as Katherine mentions, that leader's followers. The ear and hearts of the people one leads is critical to a leader's success. When a leader's followers trust him or her, then these followers are very receptive and supportive of their leader and will, in most cases, help their leader to implement the changes necessary to bolster the country and the circumstances in the country. However, when there is a lack of trust between a nation's leader and his or her followers, the corollary to that is there is also a lack of belief in and respect for that leader. Inherently, when followers no longer believe in or respect their leader, then new leadership is definitely necessary.

In the specific case of Egypt, the strong and undeniably divisive nature the country is in illustrates that the people of Egypt no longer respect or believe in their leader. As such, new leadership is essential to the survival and civility of the nation.

Posted by: toribennette | February 2, 2011 6:41 PM
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It is clear that President Mubarak is a man who exercises power rather than leadership. James MacGregor Burns, an expert on leadership and the theorist behind transformational leadership, notes that power is coercive, but a leader engages with their followers (or in this case the Egyptian people) "in a great merging of motivations and purposes."

President Mubarak may be in a leadership position, but his disconnect from the needs of the Egyptian people does not lend him leadership status. He does not work with them, but against them. He cannot come back to win the Egyptian people's favor because he has lost any connection he may have had with them, and that connection is crucial to the success of the Egyptian government and nation.

Instead, the Egyptian people need a very specific type of leader, a transformation one, to regain their faith in their government. This transformational leader needs to attend to the needs of the Egyptian people's while instilling in them a new faith in their government. Successful political leaders, unlike President Mubarak, are closely connected to their followers, and must be mindful of their values, principles, and needs. A leader, not a power-abuser, must rise up in Egypt in order for stability to be restored.

Posted by: lizpyoung | February 1, 2011 6:22 PM
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