Authority vs. Responsibility: Understanding the Inertia of Leadership

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The status of power, contrary to what many think, is not absolute authority. Instead, it sets a relationship of responsibility between the powerful and the powerless (or significantly less powerful). You are a leader if you handle any duty, even if the responsibility is limited.

Our work impacts our lives in many ways; it also affects the community at scale. Even if your job involves clerical level responsibilities, the impact of your actions is not any different from someone like the President of the United States, a judge, or a police officer whose duty, just like yours, is to be fair, accurate, and competent. Your decisions, directly and indirectly, will affect lots of people. Being in such a position requires a leader to be perceptive, insightful, and, most importantly, honest about their duties. 

We can all be leaders if we choose to

Today’s world doesn’t just require leaders with accountability, but also leaders with empathy. If people in power don’t understand leadership, in many cases, they will abuse it. The right kind of leadership comes with better output and an intrinsic sense of service. 

A few weeks back, I noticed a video of Justice Frank Caprio, where he dismissed a 96-year-old man for school zone violation. The speeder repeated the sentence ‘I only drive when I have to’ twice, as he violated the law to take his 63-year-old son to the hospital. After the old man explained his situation, the first thing that Judge Caprio said was, “You are a good man, sir.” His display of empathy towards the father is not just a kind act, but the exhibition of a reimagined way of leadership. 

Being in power, for him, was not to mete out justice by the book. Instead, it was to understand the multifaceted existence of responsibility from another citizen’s perspective. As a leader, instead of passing out judgment on what was apparent, he saw through the superficial layer of the situation and grasped the lesson of what it means to be a family. 

Judge Caprio’s reputation and legacy will be a lot more favorable than Judge Douglas Hoffman. Hoffman is the supervising judge in the New York County Family Court. Hoffman is a ‘top’ five worst judges in NY by the Families Civil Liberties Union New York. His negative reputation includes a sexual harassment case brought against him in Federal Court by his law clerk, Alexis Marquez. All this info is publicly available – you don’t need to search hard for it; look on the first page of Google results for Judge Hoffman.

When you do memorable and meaningful work, good things start to happen for you and the people you serve. While it is hard to trust reviews and accounts from unhappy or biased people on the internet, winning at Google isn’t very hard. Just stand for something that makes a positive impression; it will always outshine people who are unhappy with you.

Doing something memorable starts with knowing what you will stand for and what you won’t stand for.

We recently lost Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The impression Ginsberg made on the world transcends differences. And according to The Atlantic, She “left a significant mark on law, on feminism, and, late in her life, on pop culture. When you transcend into pop culture, you must have done something right. Check out What we can learn from Ginsburg’s friendship with my father, Antonin Scalia.

Your life’s leadership journey starts beyond your comfort zone!

Being in a position of power, or any job involving responsibility, for the long term comes with its pros and cons. A teacher, for example, can have thirty years of experience; or to put it in other words, thirty times a single year of experience. While spending much time in a role can be fruitful for some, there is an equal chance for inertia and dormancy to seep in. 

A radical approach is to set term limits, leave your comfort zone, engage in continuous learning, and switch jobs (if necessary) to prevent yourself from falling into the state of inertia. As a leader, being dishonest to your duties is like doing your community a disservice. Acquiring a deeper level of understanding and empathy of not just your job, but also of the impact of your actions on a large scale will help you avoid that. 

I worked for a large part of my life in corporate America. I’ve had my share of experiences of being in the position of power. But the only thing that has kept inertia at bay is curiosity and constant learning. I often talk to the mentors and guides in my life for direction. 

As a leader of your life, your checks and balances are in your hands, and if you find the right guide, your work will not only be fruitful but will also lead to the greater good.

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