I like to think that each and every one of is an authority on something. Whether it be baseball statistics of yesteryear, automobile repair, medicine, knot tying, 5th-grade trivia, sewing, baking, computers, or you name it, each of us is AN authority on something. Likewise, we all enjoy varying levels of positional authority in our personal (i.e. parent, coach) and professional lives. While listening to a recent PODCast, Dr. Robert Cialdini (author of Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive) scratched the surface on the importance of becoming AN authority before being IN a position to exert any true influence. He also highlighted the difference between being AN authority and being placed IN authority. Dr. Cialdini was approaching this topic from a position of offering insight on how to gain influence in our professional lives and I am not disagreeing with him. The seed he planted gave me reason to explore a corollary. Do leaders (parents, work center supervisors and the like) need to be AN authority before we are placed IN authority?

In a perfect world, I believe most would quickly agree that the answer is yes. I want my doctor and my accountant both to be AN authority before I or their professional accreditation body places them IN authority. At the same time, many believe it is preferable to know how to execute the responsibilities we are asking those under our leadership to. I have found that there are many situations where it is more beneficial if those who are IN authority are not AN authority on everything within the portfolio of responsibilities. In less than six months, I am moving to Pensacola, Florida where I will have the privilege of being a Commanding Officer. Though such a role is the epitome of being IN authority, I have no expectation of becoming AN authority on each of the business lines that will be under my charge before I take command. Just as with each of the leadership positions I have enjoyed, I will show up in many respects an apprentice, surround myself with masters and leave no less than a journeyman. That may make me an underachiever or lazy to some, but I believe that striving to be THE authority because one is IN authority is detrimental to the team. It goes back to the main takeaway from one of my favorite books (The E-Myth Revisited), which was that those running the business need to go to work on the business rather than in it.

Influencing others as AN authority requires a different set of skills than successfully leading while IN authority. It is important for those of us who are AN authority to help the person who is IN authority focus on the big picture. Likewise, it is paramount that those of us IN authority include THE authorities who surround us in the decision-making process and deliberately mentor our best and brightest to grow into positions where they are IN authority.

Thanks, Dr. Cialdini for giving me reason to think about the change in mindset that comes with the simple act of replacing an article (“an”) with an adverb (“in”).

  • What are you AN authority of?
  • How do you partner with those who are IN authority versus AN authority?
  • What skills might you want to further develop before you are placed IN authority?