The Problem with Positional Leadership

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We can distill leadership in two of its basic foundations: positional and influential. Understanding them will dictate and help you successfully navigate through leadership waters.  You can be given the position but unless you also have the influence, you are not really a leader.

positional vs Influential leadership leader

Positional leadership is given, while influential is earned. While they are not mutually exclusive, some never make the connection. It took me a while before I got that lesson, but once I did, I understood the power of influence.

Anyone can get a job managing a person, or a group of people. My first job as a manager was as a part-time music director at a church while going through graduate school. I had to lead a choir, which I was prepared to lead; however, the choir was not the problem, Rosie, the organist, was. I remember my first day on the job when one of the choir members half jokingly said, “all the other choir directors before you are buried behind the gym.” While not all of them were, I’m certain at least a couple had to be there. After all Rosie had been there for nearly 30 years and none of them were around. Her organ shoes were older than me.

I quickly realized that while technically I was Rosie’s boss, she was going to do whatever she wanted unless I moved from being a positional leader to an influential one. It took me a couple of years of hard work on our relationship and earning her trust, but finally Rosie and I became a team. She trusted me and in the course of a few years, I was the person in charge, even though I was still in my 2o’s and Rosie was well into her 60’s . As a matter of fact, before I left that job, Rosie retired.

Positional leaders without influence are dictators at worst and poor managers at best. People will “follow” them until they find something else to do. If you’re not sure you have influence, ask yourself “would my employee, team take my advice and direction if I were not the boss?”  If you cannot answer with a resounding, “yes,” chances are you’re managing from a positional place and not leading from influence.

Have you ever worked for a positional leader? What happened?

  • Anonymous

    I have worked for a boss that was only a positional leader and I quit. Unemployment was worth the peace of mind.

    Hardest lesson I learned was “leading” a church committee, within 3 weeks I was the committee. Everyone quit.  It’s a lesson I’ll never forget. I tell people on the job that if they want to really test their leadership go lead volunteers.  It’s a different dynamic when the people ain’t on the payroll.  

    Great post!

    • Leading a volunteer team is  truly a test of your leadership skills. You’re right, you cannot be a positional leader and lead volunteers in something meaningful.

  • I’ve worked for a positional leader.  It was no fun.  

    As I began to gain influential leadership apart from him, he began to feel threatened because he didn’t have influence…only position.  He started to micromanage me, which he didn’t start out doing, because he realized he didn’t have influence with those he was called to lead.

    • Oooh, been there.  Except I was a volunteer.  No longer there.  A perk of being a volunteer.  😉

      Being micromanaged has always felt so disrespectful to me.  Why ask me to do something if you can’t trust me to manage the details?

    • @benreed:disqus How long did you last in that position?

  • Anonymous

    Worked for a gigantic nationwide franchise company based in Gallatin, TN. One particular owner ruled, I do mean ruled, by position and let you know it. It has left the worst taste for corporate politics in my mouth ever.

    You hit the nail on the head with this article.

    • Dictator owners are the worst. Just ask people who work for me. 🙂

  • Andy

    I can totally relate to Ben’s post. My one experience with this type leader happened in the last place it should -in ministry. After a couple of years of trying to reason with this person, whom I considered a close friend, self preservation dictated I leave, as have most of the other real lay leaders. Sadly, this leaves a lot of people in the path of this dictator to be damaged and scarred and leaves a big black eye on the church. As an aside, most influential leaders are also OPEN to influence from others -not so the positional leader. Love the insight.

  • Andy

    I can totally relate to Ben’s post. My one experience with this type leader happened in the last place it should -in ministry. After a couple of years of trying to reason with this person, whom I considered a close friend, self preservation dictated I leave, as have most of the other real lay leaders. Sadly, this leaves a lot of people in the path of this dictator to be damaged and scarred and leaves a big black eye on the church. As an aside, most influential leaders are also OPEN to influence from others -not so the positional leader. Love the insight.

    • Andy, I have seen that scenario play out time and time again. So unfortunate.

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