What leadership by permission really means

Do you consider your leadership like a privilege granted by other people? If so, it could change everything about how you lead.

Steffan Surdek
February 21, 2022
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It is not a secret that the workplace is changing. New and exciting organizations are focusing on creating environments where employees feel more engaged and involved.

We are also going through a generation change, with millennials entering the workforce en masse. Old leadership methods that you know may no longer work with this younger generation of employees.

In this article, we will go deeper into the kind of leadership style you can have towards your team in this ever evolving business world.

Leadership styles are changing

Leaders used to tell people what they wanted and how they wanted it done. All the employees needed to do was carry out what was asked of them. In an engaged workforce, that balance is shifting because you need to let employees make some of the decisions their leaders used to make.

There are different types of leadership styles you may see in the workplace, such as leading by authority or leading by example. Personally, I used to lead by example a lot in my life. I would join teams and work to the best of my ability whatever my role was. Somehow, people followed.

Leading by example is usually fine in companies that are more results- or performance-oriented. More and more, you probably hear talk about the importance of work-life balance and respect of the individual. Employees want workplaces where they are treated as human beings instead of replaceable pieces of a puzzle.

In this context, the kind of leadership you have to bring to be an effective leader needs to change as well. I believe that leading by permission is key in this new workplace.

What do I mean by permission?

Let’s walk through an example from the world of professional sports. Back in the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, the hockey world was quite different than today. Players were making fairly low amounts of money and they were very much led by authority and the fear of being sent down to the minors. The message was clear: Do as we tell you or risk losing your spot on the roster.

Now, with many players earning more than their coaches and the security that money brings, what motivates them to follow their leader? Does leadership by authority work as well now as it did 40 or 50 years ago or even just 20 years ago?

There is an expression when a coach loses his job: they say that he lost his locker room. When I hear that now, I strongly believe the team just took away the permission they gave this person to lead them.

In the new workplace, you want to treat employees as people because you want an engaged workforce. This is very similar to the new hockey world (without the humongous salaries of course)!

The distinction between managing and leading

How does a hockey coach convince a group of millionaires to give him permission to lead them? I think we can agree that when a coach is fired and someone new takes his place, the players will often give this person the permission to lead them, at least temporarily.

Before talking about the role of permission in leadership, we should discuss the distinction between a leader and a manager. In my daily work, I often encounter managers who have no leadership at all.

Generally, we could say that a manager takes care of his employees, ensures compliance with the processes in the company, reports on projects. Basically, the manager is responsible for the day-to-day grind.

A leader can lead a group towards the unknown. People follow and contribute to what is happening. A leader mobilizes people to willingly go through a change they may not be comfortable with. A leader also creates leaders around him.

Moving towards leadership as a permission

To better view leadership as a permission people grant us, we need to discuss some of the reasons why others would grant you permission to lead them.

One possibility is a compelling vision you share with others that lights them up. Another possibility is your accomplishments, what you represent or even just because you show up as who you truly are every day.

Let’s return to the hockey metaphor for a moment. Imagine yourself as the new head coach. Do you treat your players well? Are your strategies efficient against other teams? What motivates your decisions? Is it what is best for the team or is it your own personal interests?

There are many different factors, but my message is that people grant permission to lead them through many little things that happen every day.


Considering leadership as a permission presents you with a new challenge as a leader. Can you live and act from your core values and beliefs every day? This is hard because it means to fully show up and bring the authentic leader that lives inside of you.

Just wearing the mask of the leader you want to be is not enough anymore. If you cannot be this authentic leader and walk your own talk, the beauty of this style of leadership is that the people you lead can revoke the permission to lead them at any time.

What kind of leadership do you bring to your daily life? What could be different if you started considering it as a permission and a privilege granted by the people you lead?