How people grant permission to lead in organizations

What are you doing every day as a leader to earn the permission to lead the people around you. Do you have permission to be a leader in your organization?

Steffan Surdek
April 3, 2017
A team sitting around a table

I wrote this article a few years ago after doing an interview on a cable tv show about my article called "And what if leadership was a permission". I originally wrote it in French and never translated it before. I felt the article was still relevant so I decided to repost it here with a few minor tweaks.

During the cable tv show, the host challenged me if the concept of leadership as permission was applicable in an organizational context. We spoke about it at the time but I felt it was worth writing an article to expand on our discussion.

Before we start, here were the key ideas that I wanted to express in the original article:

  1. The definition of a leader is potentially larger than what we typically find in an organizational context.
  2. The role of a manager is declared by a figure of authority (i.e.: upper management), the role of a leader is unofficially given as a permission by the person being led
  3. A good manager is not necessarily a good leader
  4. To better accept leadership is granted by permission, the key is to understand leaders earn this permission through their way of being with others every day

Hierarchical leadership in organizations

How can this idea of leadership being a permission apply in an organizational context? As a starting point, let's assume that in this context, only upper management, managers and team leads can be considered leaders.

Does this look like the company where you work? If so, it could be interesting to observe the side effects of this in your work environment. For example, what happens when someone in a role other than a hierarchical leader stated above wants to make a relatively simple decision related to their work?

I was having supper with friends recently and we had a discussion around people that just show up for work to get their paycheck. One of my friends was mentioning that in the company where he works, many employees demand a decision from their manager out of fear of getting blamed if they make a bad decision. There is such a strong fear of blame or a fear of consequences that it creates an environment where employees do exactly what their manager asked for and nothing more than that.

In cultures where hierarchical structures are heavy and imposing, what happens when someone takes initiative without taking the hierarchy into consideration?

Permission to lead in an organizational context

When new managers are named in an organization, their employees typically try to figure out what to expect. If they know their manager and this person has some history in the company , their reputation will probably give some reference points to the employees.

Here are some of the comments you may hear around the proverbial water cooler:

  • "John is one of us, he's worked with us for long enough that he understands our reality and is not disconnected from our concerns! He will surely help us!"
  • "John is one of the old school managers here... Not much will change..."
  • "John has a great vision on how things need to work around here, we need to give him a good chance to succeed"

Notice how the language used in each case reflects a willingness or lack thereof to give some form of permission to lead to John. It is important to take note you will hear these kinds of comments around the water cooler for changes at all levels of management, even upper management.

How to lose the permission to lead?

My kids teach me a lot in our daily lives together. Sometimes, it happens that I promise them something but do not keep this promise. In these moments, I can see in their eyes that I just did something that impacted my credibility (and my permission to lead) with them. This example may seem simplistic though so let's explore how this applies in an organizational context.

As a leader, it is important to understand and communicate our vision effectively. Our words and our actions need to be consciously aligned with it. When we lose this alignment to regularly and too often, this is when our employees stop believing in us. The people we lead are willing to let us make mistakes but when they will notice when we lack alignment too frequently or for too long.

A more subtle aspect of the permission to lead is the human side of the equation. Being authentic and vulnerable with employees is key but this can also be very difficult for some leaders. When we act in ways to protect and manage our image, we do not bring our full gift to the people we lead.

When we are not authentic and that we are "continuously making efforts" to mask our limitations and our bad habits, these will patterns will find different ways to emerge that you will not be able to control.

Leaders create leaders

One of the biggest challenges to leadership in a large organization is the performance evaluation system that is in place. What do organizations value? How do we measure performance? Do we reward individual or collective success?

In the same way that as a leader, we need to be able to show up as authentic and vulnerable, we must be able to create environments where all our employees can do the same.

This means that as leaders, we need to accept and appreciate that every member of our teams bring skills and abilities that are their unique gift to the team and this may also include some leadership skills.

Accepting that the leadership of people that we lead is not a competition with ours can be a big challenge for our ego. This distinction is what can make a manager with poor leadership skills an even better manager.

As leaders, we need to help people around us discover and develop the leadership potential that we can see inside them. This is how leaders create leaders around them.


Based on all this, it seems to me the concept of permission to lead can apply to leadership in organizations. When this permission is there, we will find motivated and engaged teams that have fun at work and work for the betterment of the company. When this permission is revoked, things have more of a tendency to stagnate, little or nothing changes and the entire organization may eventually stagnate.

One of the brutal truths of leadership is that leaders have the teams that they deserve. I agree there are some cultural elements in every organization that lead to certain behaviors and beliefs in the system but as a leader what are you doing to change the status quo?

When you find yourself hearing recurring complaints about your employees or your team, you may want to ask yourself what you are doing to feed and encourage these behaviors and do something different.

What are you doing every day as a leader to earn the permission to lead the people around you. What leads you to believe you have permission to be a leader in your organization?