Good intentions and misguided authority

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Air War College
Authority is a two-edged sword: One cannot lead without it; one cannot lead relying exclusively upon it.

Novitiate leaders lean heavily upon position and rank as the basis for their authority. Given time and experience, good leaders expand their authority base through experience, education, relationships, and influence. Hence, as leaders gain skill and maturity, authority moves away from being exclusively institutional or formal in nature toward a form of authority that is more personal. Authority, to some degree, is always underpinned by position and rank, but, over time, it expands, given the personal traits, character, competence, and personality of an individual leader. Alas, as time passes, a tendency occurs for some leaders to take their authority for granted. Good leaders think deeply about their authority before they act. The conversation is always worth having.

Authority, simply put, is the right to direct other people to do something. Authority is the legitimate use of position, rank or power. Beware! Power does not always equate to authority; they are not the same thing. The vignette that follows makes this point. Unfortunately, it is true.

Nothing good occurs when leaders are too familiar with their surroundings or become too comfortable in their own skin. Such was the case in November 1995. While in battalion command, I had the opportunity to lead my unit through a successful mission in the Republic of Macedonia. Upon redeployment to Germany, the battalion was allowed time to refit before deploying again to link up with our higher headquarters in Bosnia. Since few active duty officers were left in Germany, I became the rear detachment commander for a large footprint, a position never sought but always taken seriously.

By happenstance, the chaplain in our battalion was a senior captain; in fact, he was "promotable." In Air Force lexicon, he was a "major select." I am not sure how I arrived at a decision, but somehow I deduced that the chaplain, given the additional responsibility of ministering to a large rear detachment footprint, should be promoted. Hence, I summarily promoted him to major. The official name for this action is frocking; that is, if it was official.

Not one for half-steps, the promotion did not happen in the dark of night or behind closed doors. Announced and advertised in advance, the ceremony was attended by all officers and senior noncommissioned officers in the unit. While family members filled the front row, speeches were given, music played, and orders read, until the rank of major was pinned to the chaplain's epaulets. The promotion party afterward, a lavish affair paid for by the chaplain and his family, set a new standard for promotion parties. Since the ceremony was on a Friday, I told the newest field grade officer in the Army, our chaplain, to take the rest of the day off.

Monday morning arrived with abandon; the first phone call of the day was from the chief of chaplains. His extreme dismay, albeit very civil, was crystal clear: I had exceeded my authority! The subsequent lecture on personnel billets, chain of command and approval protocols served to illuminate the egregious nature of my misstep; the Department of the Army is the approving authority for such actions. The day was still young. The next call, from my two-star boss in Bosnia, was not quite as civil but just as emphatic; I had crossed a line reserved for others with more authority. The message was clear: Make this right!

Receiving my comeuppance, and rightfully so, served as a wake-up call. I had violated the trust that my boss and the command placed in me. More to the point, I embarrassed myself and did harm to a good man, the chaplain. Although well-intentioned, my imprudent decision demanded corrective action.

To take the edge off the situation, I conducted a symbolic demotion ceremony in front the battalion's leaders. I apologized for my lack of discretion and provided a copious spread of food and drink for all gathered. In private, I also offered to reimburse the chaplain for his cost. He graciously refused.

Time passed, and this incident became a point of humor. Sometime later, when I saw my two-star boss, he asked if I had "frocked anyone lately." Things were going to be OK.
In this instance, I was fortunate that no one was physically injured or killed. Never again would I assume I possessed the requisite authority to direct an action or make a decision without some forethought or reflection.

Authority is, indeed, a two-edged sword.