The Difference Between Leadership and Authority


Publisher Todd Stauffer

This past weekend, we had our company retreat. The JFP team filed into a breakout room at the Mississippi Museum of Art (great facility!), had our coffee, muffins and bagels, and started telling our individual stories of what had brought us to the JFP, workshopping new ideas and building things with Play-Doh.

In preparation for the retreat, I had spent time with Simon Sinek's "Start With Why" lectures, TED Talk and musings; I read the book two years ago before another retreat and was skimming back through so we could do some "why" exercises this time around.

It was there, in some of his more recent work on leadership, that I got into a concept that I suddenly realized resonated with the broader discussion that we're having in this country right now as a result of the shootings by police in Ferguson and St Louis, Mo., these past weeks.

Sinek says essentially this: Don't confuse leadership with authority. People who have authority over you can tell you what to do; people who offer leadership make you want to follow them, and they tend to make you feel safe.

It's a powerful concept when we bring it back to the role that the gun plays in policing; all too often it seems people confuse the purpose of a gun with something I call "remote-control authority."

This isn't just something that the police do. It seems that too many gun supporters (or at least those that play them in online comments) imagine that a gun is a tool designed to force compliance or "respect" for their "authority." From some of the hew and cry after Ferguson, it seems some people believe that an individual who doesn't comply with an officer's commands should, almost by definition, expect to die in a shower of bullets.

However, the cops who think about this stuff will tell you that the guns are used to save lives. Period. While that might be the cop's life or his or her partner's; the use of a gun should err on the side of saving lives of innocent victims. Unfortunately, it's not at all clear that was the case in Michael Brown's shooting, as the officer fired at him 11 times, as video now shows, and seems even less clear in the case that was caught on video just days later in St. Louis.

Of course, people find ways to justify almost any sort of violence by the police or homeowners, especially gun violence, and especially by gun enthusiasts. And that's one reason that I want to make the authority vs. leadership distinction—because it's up to the true leaders in any given community to further the dialogue on these issues and help a community come to more rational and less knee-jerk solutions to these problems.

In Japan, for instance, where almost all kinds of gun-ownership are illegal, the police do carry guns—and they're much more highly trained both in using the gun and in subduing criminals using the martial arts. The result is fewer than 20 national gun deaths most years.

Even beyond the individual police reactions in these Missouri shootings—and too many others around the country, including an under-publicized incident with a black officer killing a young, unarmed white man in Salt Lake City—Ferguson also presented itself as a test case in how not to quell a riot by showing how ridiculously over-militarized a police force can be in trying to assert its authority instead of its leadership.

As Rachel Maddow pointed out regarding the shooting of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis, in an even more cut-and-dry example of the overuse of deadly force, the St. Louis police's reaction—one of being very open with the public and press about the incident—may have quelled potential riots (and looting) much more effectively than the storm-trooper approach in Ferguson.

So back to Sinek. What's clearly missing in Ferguson, and perhaps in too many cities and urban police departments around the country, is leadership contrasted with authority. And how does one make the distinction? Simple, really. People listen to those in authority because they have to; people listen to leaders because they want to.

Want telltale evidence of leadership? You'll hear the people who do great things at the behest of a true leader say something this: "She would have done it for me."

One is reminded, perhaps, of a time too-long past, when police cars said "protect and serve" on their fenders. It's the service part that some of these police forces need to look into again. Of course, to get there, they're going to need true leaders to inspire—and serve—them.

In a recent TED Talk, Professor Eric Liu called for better civics education and understanding in our schools and communities, and he noted that one particular governmental institution—the city—is the perfect laboratory for civic engagement. It's on the level of the city that regular people can get things done, instead of leaving all of the decision-making to "the professionals," as he called them—lobbyists, politicians and bureaucrats.

Which brings me back to the JFP retreat. At that retreat we worked on the JFP's "Why" statement, one component of which is to continue to do the hard work to report on Jackson's leadership and institutions, giving you as complete a picture as we can, given our resources.

We will fight in situations where the "authorities" attempt to block our access to public information or ignore our questions or avoid their responsibilities. And we call on the new administration—both in City Hall and JPD—to step up to leadership, not just authority.

But it's not just up to JFP; it's up to all of us. We need to demand that elected and appointed officials exercise leadership, not just authority, and that they include their constituents in the civic discourse and decision-making process.

The JFP is fired up to keep up our end of the bargain—and judging from last Saturday's retreat, we've got a great team in place to keep at it. Join us!

Todd Stauffer is the president and publisher of the Jackson Free Press. Email him at todd@jacksonfreepress.com.


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