Why Can’t Top Exec Make Decision? Authority vs Responsibility


During an interesting conversation about leadership responsibilities, the subject of authority vs. responsibility came up regarding mail delivery on Saturdays.

Having lived north of the border where Canada Post does not deliver mail on the weekend, I wanted to understand more.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net



USPS Example

As the head of the United Stated Postal Service (USPS), the U.S. Postmaster General is the second highest paid government official in the Nation. He runs the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world and employs the third largest number of civilians in the United States. Despite his pay and leadership responsibilities, he cannot make the decision to deliver mail only five days a week.

Each time the USPS attempts to introduce this change, Congress nixes the idea of this cost cutting measure. Politics aside, this made me think of how demoralizing it is when a leader is given a responsibility, but does not possess the authority to make the final decision.

Why? Check out these links if you want to learn more:

This caught my interest and attention because nobody wants leadership responsibilities without authority. Instead, every leader wants to work for someone who knows how to empower them and allow him or her to make decisions.

Army leadership taught that good leaders delegate authority, but they never delegate responsibility!

Let’s take a quick look at a couple of definitions:

  • Definition of Authority: “the power to enforce rules or give orders, a privilege given to an individual in a management or supervisory position.”
  • Definition of Responsibility: “a duty or obligation where someone is held accountable.”

Authority vs. Responsibility

In my first assignment as a young lieutenant, I learned the lesson about accepting responsibility from my first battalion commander, Mike Pulliam.

Mike made us realize that it was a privilege to lead. He made clear that it is was our job to set the example, develop others, and give them support along the way.

He established an environment where his junior leaders were empowered to make decisions, which gave us room to make mistakes so that we could learn and grow.

On one occasion, one of my peers had made a decision that gained unwanted attention from Mike’s boss. We expected the “stuff” to roll down hill, but it never happened, and we wondered why. Only later, did we discover that Mike had taken full responsibility.

What a great example and message: Mike taught us leadership by accepting responsibility.

Delegating Leadership Style

Mike believed it was his responsibility to train his leadership team, provide some boundaries, and as long as we remained within those boundaries, we were given room to make mistakes; demonstrating a delegating leadership style.

In a sense, he was teaching us customer loyalty concepts: the assumption being that if we could see his leadership in action, we would treat our teams the same way.

Imagine your impact when you display genuine interest in your team’s personal development and growth, and you demonstrate it by providing top cover so that others can learn and grow. Mike had the most loyal followers!

Accepting responsibility was just one of many leadership qualities we witnessed from Mike. We had great respect for him and his actions inspired us to want to never let him down again.

When leaders hold themselves accountable for everything within the boundaries they set, they demonstrate a delegating leadership style and create an environment that inspires others.

USPS Scenario Revisited

After reviewing the links above, I found myself scratching my head.

I wondered why our nation’s second highest paid government official, who runs a quasi-governmental agency, operates the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world, and employees the third largest number of civilians in the United States, lacks the authority to balance his own budget without Congressional interference.

There are enough leadership challenges without feeling supported.