Carl Pritchard on Leading without Authority

“Don’t giCh03-kingve me that BS!”, says Carl, beaming. It’s a dinner meeting at the PMI chapter in Washington DC. If you’ve been a speaker at a dinner you know you’re competing with digestive systems that are trying to sloooow everything down.  That’s when you need a dynamic speaker like @CarlPritchard! [Or me. Ahem. Just sayin’]

Project managers are always complaining about having to lead but having no authority. Carl points out that this is simply not true. All you are missing out on is one component (formal authority) of the 5 commonly-accepted sources from which you can derive authority. You don’t have to have worked in too many organizations to know that the power doesn’t always flow neatly down the lines of the organization chart. You can also have:

  • Referent authority: people give you respect because your reputation precedes you.
  • Expert authority: people can actually watch you doing what you do and they decide they’d do better if they did things your way.
  • Reward power (so much nicer a term than “coercive power”): people appreciate your ability to do something nice for them (or to do them some damage)
  • Charisma, or star power.

Charisma’s the odd one. Many people who have it think that they do not. But you don’t have to be a Hollywood star or a biker gang leader to qualify. Carl’s view of it is that it’s really all about convincing your target audience (in this case your work group) that you are, as he puts it, “in the same mental space with them”. You don’t necessarily have to have the same compelling back-story or be sharing the same family or other traumas that they may be going through. You just have to get it across that you are listening and trying your best to take these things into account.

In addition, leaders don’t produce documentation (or at least, they don’t see that as their legacy).  They lead.  They get people to do things, and better yet, get people to want to do things.  And not too many people go to work thinking “I’m really going to feel so jazzed if I can add a few hundred more lines to that Gantt chart”.

[Carl didn’t say this, so I’m just going to offer it up for context: Don’t think project managers are alone in having to manage without authority: line managers have many of the same constraints. Traditional reward systems are simply no longer available in today’s ever-more centralized, rule-driven world, perks are disappearing, pay is declining and the clock is never off.  In all too many body-shop companies, training is off the budget, vacations are on your own dime, professional development isn’t even part of the language, and job security is only as good as the end of the contract.  Even the old stand-by, time-off awards, are not happening in companies dedicated to keeping up billable rates, and indeed many workers don’t WANT more time off when it just means their inboxes pile up higher.  What they really want, given the limited number of options remaining, is a bit more say over when and how they do their work, and the opportunity to have that work be at least a little meaningful. Which, brings us very nicely back to Carl’s actual comments].

As a leader, you can motivate your teams by focusing on the things that are important to them:

  • Getting things done. Not started. Done.
  • Feel like they have a little bit of control over something. People will do good work as long as they know they’re allowed to, and they know how.  That’s on you.
  • Have a sense of continuity. (Well, this might be a taller order, if you work in the for-hire business).
  • Feel appreciated.  You don’t always have to come up with cash; in fact, after taxes, a $300 bonus can be more of an insult than a motivator. We all know it’s easier to write a check than actually get involved. Get involved. Talk to them about what you appreciate and why. Some prefer not to be called out publicly, and you have to honor that, but even they would be thrilled that you even thought about it.

So thanks, Carl Pritchard, for giving us that good solid dunking in the cold water to wake us back up. You can get  more of his common sense and impish humor at

Well, all right, then.  Maybe you don’t have the full authority that Ebenezer Scrooge thought he had.  But your counterpart on the line manager side doesn’t either. In effect, you’ve got all the same tools any other manager has, and that’s as good as it’s going to get in this 21st century. Let’s just get out there and do it.

Thanks for the read!  My book “Let It Simmer: Making Project, Portfolio and Program Management Practices Stick in Skeptical Organizations” has a similar theme. Things might appear stacked against you but there are ways to get things done. Or visit my home page to find out what we can get done in a few hours together.


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