The power of the authority gradient

Some of us are fortunate enough to have a clever sibling who introduce us to concepts, divergent perspectives and often, very good ideas. So it was for me with my brother who introduced me to the concept of the authority gradient several years ago. My fascination with this concept and its implicit power to facilitate positive outcomes has remained with me ever since. Its application is so broad, yet its prevalence is less frequent, as its success is dependent upon those with authority being able to share power with other competent and honourable individuals during a crisis.

So let’s first deal with some definitions, as located via Google, as follows:

“Authority Gradient refers to the established, and/or perceived, command and decision-making power hierarchy in a Team, Crew or Group situation, and also how balanced the distribution of this power is experienced within the Team, Crew or Group.” Reference:

This was “first defined in aviation when it was noted that pilots and copilots may not communicate effectively in stressful situations if there is a significant difference in their experience, perceived expertise, or authority”. Reference:

This concept also has practical utility in the medical profession where it can refer to “the perceived difference in status between different members of an organization. It is a barrier to effective communication and a potential source of interpersonal resentment and organizational error.” Reference:

A key feature as noted above is that this understanding is established in advance, requiring in some situations, both the preparedness to cede authority by a leader as well as the willingness to assume control by a subordinate. This is trained in advance and is encouraged in emergency situations for the greater good, for example, a plane is landed safely despite software malfunctions or a patient’s life is saved in a hospital setting. These moments are not times for ego-exercising but rather decisive action by the person who is most able.

Effectively, the authority gradient approach is most concerned with the achievement of the best outcomes. It epitomises the best of teamwork and leadership. It requires humility and flexibility with those in authority complemented by the courage of others to step forward cometh the moment.

In contemporary times, this approach is being embraced by strategic, innovative and competent organisations. Good decision making may protect or save lives, save the environment, reduce world poverty or build profitable, sustainable and cohesive companies. Sadly however, too many of our political leaders, in these dynamic times of social, environmental and economic unrest, choose to place their authority, their vested interests and ideologies ahead of the pragmatic needs of their constituents. They all too often use their power to sustain their authority, rather than exercise humility and consult and defer to the experts in their teams and community. If only.

Meantime, I encourage you to find ways to practise the authority gradient in your organisation, even in your family! You may be very pleasantly surprised by the profound and positive outcomes that emerge accordingly.