Leadership Challenge: Responsibility without Authority

by Alli Polin on September 5, 2012

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I’ve seen it over an over – a leader is given responsibility for a task and never really handed the full reigns to get it done. In fact, I’ve been there and I’m guessing that you have too.

A few years ago, I took a job as a Vice President responsible for a large-scale change management effort. The entire senior leadership team was new to the organization and we were all excited and filled with energy and ideas on how we could turn around a struggling business unit. Together, with the Senior Vice President that I reported to, we scoped out the organization structure that we thought was needed for the division to be successful. I was supposed to have a significant team helping me with the change management, leadership development and other programs that we wanted to accomplish over the year. Unfortunately, the very top people decided that he could only hire the first level leadership on the org chart and all of the other people could be hired “in time”. No surprise that we failed. Miserably. My boss never really had the authority to get the job done and as a result, neither did I. Every step had approval after approval after approval.

Are you tasked with leading but the constraints on your success are constantly pushing you under water? Here are six ways that you can reframe the situation and take a new perspective.

  1. Don’t stop leading.  Throwing your hands up in the air and giving up is not an option when you know that you’re being managed too tightly. Complaining to your colleagues about the constraints will only make things worse too. Make a list of what you have been able to accomplish to date and enjoy it. Celebrate it. Think about sharing this much more positive list with colleagues for a change.
  2. Talk about what’s happening.  I know, sounds too simple, but the people that you report to may not realize that they are holding you back from the shared goals that you want to accomplish. Be clear, concise and thoughtful about the challenges and risks that you’re facing.
  3. Ask for support.  Asking for what you need is important – even if the answer is “no”. If you never speak up, not only will you be risking success but also people will ask why you never said anything or asked for the support that you needed.
  4. Scope out a plan.  Ensure that the people that you report to understand your vision, plan and likely outcomes. In your plan be sure to put in risk factors – document it all. Ask for a blessing on your plan and once you have it, move forward.
  5. Stop asking for permission.  I hate to say it but sometimes we are stuck without authority is because as leaders we look above us too often for approval. Find pieces that you can move on and do it with confidence and competence. When you need to make quick decisions make them. Inform others after, not before, and see what happens.
  6. Create a new path.  If you are not empowered to move forward on the big vision at hand, find what you are able to do and do it. Big wins are paved with small successes along the way.  What do you have the authority to move on? What decisions can you act on today?

You were hired for a reason and have a lot to offer. Don’t let responsibility without authority hold you back from being the leader that you want and need to be. Quiet acceptance does not make change. Find your pockets of authority and take action.

What are some other ways that you’ve found to be successful when you’ve been given responsibility but were not empowered as a leader to get things done? 

(Photo credit)

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) May 2, 2013 at 2:10 am

Dear Alli,
This what I really needed to read because it relates so much to my situation!
Flat leadership is out of the question over here (unfortunately): too many levels of hierarchy doing nothing but suffocating our creativity and restraining our development.
Thank you for the great post!!


Alli Polin May 2, 2013 at 5:03 am

Hoda –

I’m so glad it reached you at the right time! I totally know what it’s like to be a place where it feels like no matter what you try to do, you’re blocked. Hopefully, you’ll find a path to more creativity at work! For me, without some creative latitude, I’m not a happy woman.

Many thanks for your comment!




Leader July 11, 2013 at 4:46 am


I appreciate your article. I am facing a challenge that would require this kind of advice. I feel like giving up. I am a leader but I have never been correct from my bosses’ perspective. For me to be correct it depends on my bosses mood for that day. For example we all know that if you take a “One” and a “one” together a person might willfully pronounce it as eleven. Within the mathematical principles we know that if you add a one and one you get two. So my boss always operate at a platform that leaves both anwers correct but the problem is the day when I say the answer is eleven he/she makes a full out of me. If then I say the answer is two he/she would make a full out of me.
After this I am still responsible for best results.

Whats your comment/advice


Alli Polin July 11, 2013 at 10:59 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It sounds like you’re in a position where you feel like you can never get things right. I’ve found that when I see other people, like your boss, as another human being that is just doing their best, I’m not only more forgiving but also less frustrated and more empowered. I take things less personally when I stop worrying how others will react to my decisions and actions when I know I’m in alignment with my values and doing my best as well.

You should also consider having a different, more personal 1×1 with your boss. Talk about your desire to do great work and ask for their support. You may also want to engage them in the challenges you’re facing. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to make the unspoken, spoken.

Not sure that either of these are the right thing for you but hope that they give you a place to start thinking about what could work.




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