Authority Relationships (Re-post from OD Net)

Hi Rosa,

I love what you say about freedom and authority as complementary. In response to your question, I believe that if I don’t continue to work my reactions to my primary customer that I become part of the system. It is very tempting for me, especially with my longest standing clients, to focus on the rest of their organization, and stop processing my reactions to them. That very temptation is a reaction to them! Or at least to their positional authority. Why risk mucking up a relationship that has lasted ten years and puts bread on my table? I experience the very tug that leads others in the system to tread lightly with the leader, and to only be open about what seems safe.

It’s the dance of authority that permeates the system at every hierarchical interface. If I don’t get off my duff and be as real as I can at my level, I am reinforcing a façade at every other level.

At my best, I contract and re-contract this with my primary sponsor. At my worst, I let it slide, while I occupy myself with other matters. It takes discipline. It helps to frame the need for candor with one’s boss as part of the overall process of facilitating a healthier organization. I’ve never had such a conversation backfire, to the best of my knowledge, even though I fear each such conversation as potentially work ending. I’m very irrational in such matters, and I believe most people are.

To some extent my od interventions provide structure so that information flows more freely despite authority relationships. And if the customer will sponsor deep change, I build in culture that sustains the flow.

I see authority relationships as part of the essence of human existence, mirroring our early pre-cognitive relationship with powerful figures (our parents or primary caretakers). We then project the hopes and fears and dances of those first two years onto every authority figure in our lives. The possibilities, if one knows how to connect and lead, are for deep, rich and fulfilling engagement. If one mismanages authority, though abdication or emotional abuse (unintended or not), the spirit of individuals and systems gets sucked dry.



—–Original Message—–
From: Rosa Zubizarreta []
Sent: Monday, June 29, 2009 6:26 PM
To: Gilmore Crosby;
Subject: Re: [Odnet] Question about article references, frameworks,

Dear Gil,

I agree completely with what you wrote below…

> I see clear and effective authority as a necessary condition for
> participation, and as dependent on participation.
> And everyone has personal and positional authority, whether the
> janitor or the CEO. As the saying goes, “without structure, there is no freedom.”

And also, with what you had written in your earlier post on this subject:

> Human
> systems need some degree of freedom and “self-organizing” or they
> become stale. Human systems also need alignment/focus which comes from
> (or fails to
> come) from leadership.

I think the reason I am calling “freedom” and “authority” a polarity, is NOT because I see them as inherently contradictory, but precisely because I see them both as necessary “poles” — different yet complementary, and equally necessary.

In fact my sense is that each without the other, becomes a “shadow” of itself… Freedom without any authority turns into license, authority without any freedom turns into tyranny.

And, I’d love to read more of your thoughts and experiences regarding the

> authority – how I manage it,
> how I deal with people above and below me, how I manage peer and
> cross-functional relations – is a huge variable in personal and
> systemic performance. One which appears to me to be as big a challenge
> for OD people, including myself, as it is for the customers.

With all best wishes,


About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
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