Organizational Wellness

Leadership vs. Authority: How to Cultivate Empathetic, Impactful Leaders for Your Organization

Mar 5, 2023
Last Updated May 16, 2024

Think about some of the most desirable qualities you’d want in a leader for your organization. Selflessness, a team-first attitude, proactive communication, accountability….now think about who on your team embodies these qualities. Is it only the people who are in manager-level roles?

Most likely, the answer is no! Some of our best leaders are actually the people who work beside us or even report to us, contributing innovative thoughts and helping their teammates out. Great leaders are sprinkled throughout companies, regardless of their place on the org chart.


True organizational success happens when the people in authority positions exhibit strong leadership qualities. But this isn’t always a given — authority and leadership aren’t the same, and promoting someone to manager or VP doesn’t automatically qualify them to lead others. 

Instead, strong, empathetic leaders have to be cultivated, so that they’re prepared when they reach higher-ranking positions.

What is Authority?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, authority is “the moral or legal right or ability to control.” It also defines it as, “a group of people with official responsibility for a particular area or activity.”

Authority is the power that comes from a formal role within an organization. It’s determined by job titles and hierarchies, and it usually requires having the final say in decision-making. People who are in positions of authority often have access to more resources and can give instructions or make demands of those beneath them. In other words, they have control.

What is Leadership?

Leadership, on the other hand, is less tangible and comes from qualities like self-awareness, empathy, courage, humility, and integrity. According to McKinsey, “Leadership is a set of behaviors used to help people align their collective direction, to execute their strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization.”

It’s not just a title — it’s an influence over others that inspires greatness in those around them and empowers other people to do their own jobs. A leader doesn’t need to be in a managerial role to be effective. They can still foster trust, create positive change, and lead by example at any level in an organization.

Authority vs. Leadership

Simon Sinek may have said it best when he stated, “Title affords you authority, affords you rank, but that doesn’t make you a leader.”

The difference between leadership and authority boils down to influence through action. Authority comes from a title or hierarchy, but leadership is earned through trust and respect from teammates, no matter what the organizational chart looks like. It may sound cliche, but leadership isn’t given through a rank or title. It’s earned by exhibiting traits and carrying out tasks regularly, no matter how small or mundane, that help the team. Through these actions, successful leaders gain influence over their peers and those around them, while authority figures simply hold control over those beneath them.

“When they align, it’s magical,” Sinek continued his video talk on leadership. “When you have rank and you’ve been studying leadership, then you can actually affect the culture in a more robust way. One of the primary responsibilities of any leader is to make more leaders, and you can do that at scale if you have authority.”

Formal Authority vs. Informal Authority and Leadership

Formal authority is the power people have within a hierarchy or organizational chart. It’s easy to spot because it comes with titles and job descriptions. Someone who has formal authority can make decisions that impact the team, whereas someone who lacks formal authority may not be able to do so.

Informal authority is less tangible — it’s the influence that someone has through their behavior, attitude, and commitment to teamwork. People with informal authority are typically well-respected by their peers and have the ability to rally a group toward a common goal.

Effective leadership is similar to informal authority in that it’s more of an attitude than an actual title or hierarchy. It’s earned through consistent actions and behaviors, like integrating mindfulness throughout the team culture, stepping up to take ownership of problems, and setting an example for others.

8 Qualities for Effective Leaders to Cultivate

By cultivating some of these personal qualities across your team, you can help create a working environment built around collaboration and trust — regardless of who holds which leadership position.

  1. Selflessness: This means putting the team first and prioritizing a team member’s or coworker’s needs over their own. They don’t seek out credit, recognition, convenience, or personal gain. They’re focused on the greater good.
  2. Proactive communication: Good leaders should strive to be honest and transparent in their communication with others, while also being open to feedback and different ways of doing things.
  3. Accountability: Leaders take ownership of expectations and mistakes, not just for themselves but for the rest of the team, and proactively work towards solutions. 
  4. Empathy: Empathy is about striving to understand your teammate’s perspective and helping to motivate others through encouragement and positivity.
  5. Integrity: Even in difficult or trying situations, leaders can draw on their core principles, make decisions that are true to their values, and use the power of their position for good.
  6. Adaptability: Leaders should be able to adjust their plans and strategies based on changing situations. They aren’t phased by adversity, and they can help guide those around them through last-minute pivots.
  7. Humility: Good leaders, while successful, can stay humble and recognize the value that everyone brings to the team, regardless of their role.
  8. Visionary thinking: Some leaders are also visionaries with bold ideas. They constantly strive for innovation and they harness that creative energy to inspire their team towards success.

Create Space for Leaders to Develop Through Training Opportunities

As an HR leader, it’s in your scope of influence to implement a program with fringe benefits that include training, coaching, and leadership development opportunities that focus on leadership and soft skills. Why not build out a program that helps each employee hone their leadership skills so they’re more prepared to take the next step?

Training and coaching opportunities can help with succession planning as employees move up the ladder. They can also improve employee engagement and retention within your organization. Sixty-three of employees would be more likely to stay with their companies if they were offered better learning and development opportunities, according to a Paychex study.

Training opportunities can also be a key piece of your overall wellness program, by helping to expand your culture of opportunity and helping your employees feel happy and motivated to be at work. Learn more about how to cultivate wellness journeys for your team members by speaking to one of our Wellbeing Specialists!

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!

You May Also Like: 

10 Top Qualities of a Good Manager

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[Free Download] How to Experience Mindful Leadership at Work



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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