blog overview
Goal Setting
Hasse Jansen, 14 Jul '16

Effective Leadership – How to Balance Autonomy and Authority

Next gen leaders look for the perfect combination of team autonomy and leader authority. Create transparency and facilitate self-governance to make that happen.

We’ve all ‘enjoyed’ the presence of an overly authoritative director watching your every move, while you’re being micromanaged all the way to Friday afternoon drinks.

And you most likely have experience working for a director that was just ‘all over the place’, or maybe I should say ‘nowhere to be found’. Anything goes, and no way to verify what success actually looks like this wonderful afternoon.

It may seem like you’ll have to choose between one or the other, until you retire. But you’re wrong. The trick is to use the right tools to find the sweet spot, to enjoy the best of both worlds. You’ll be able to do things how you think is best, while you can be confident everything you do adds value.

Yes, there is such a thing. And this it what it looks like.

Combine high team autonomy with medium leader authority

The Australian Leadership Foundation has mapped the most effective leadership styles, taking into account Team Autonomy and Leader Authority. It’s awesome.

Leader Authority can be determined by assessing the power the leader has over others, and how prominent it is. Highly authoritative leaders’ decisions will by definition go unquestioned, whether the directive is to ‘keep your head down and listen’ or to ‘sort it out yourself’.

[bctt tweet="Effective leadership is about combining high team autonomy with medium leader authority" username="Boardview_io"]

Team Autonomy can be determined by assessing the freedom the team has to do as they see fit. Highly autonomous teams are free to make their own decisions, whether they incorporate their leader in the decision-making process or are left on their own.

Research by the Australian leadership Foundation shows that a specific mix of autonomy/authority levels outperform others. In short, facilitating High Team Autonomy is paramount. You’ll be save in any case. But if you want to go for glory, combine it with Medium Leader Authority. Your team will be operating efficiently and individual members will be hugely engaged when you can make it happen.

Below is the matrix as created by The Australian Leadership Foundation

leadership_styles Australian Leadership Foundation

In this model, the legend shows that engagement is a product of team collaboration and sense of ownership, and efficiency is a function of the volume produced and the time needed to do so.

Looking at the matrix, High Leader Authority yields high Efficiency while High Team Autonomy causes high Engagement. Crucially, what it also reads on the right side in the middle: the best overall score can be reached when High Autonomy is combined with Medium Leader Authority.

So that’s the theory. This is what we’re aiming for. Question remains, how do we get there? How can we position the Team and the team Leader for optimal performance?

Answer: giving your team the right strategic information…. which sounds easier than it is. Effective leaders combine efficiency and team autonomy by managing the flow of information top down and bottom up. They provide the right amount of information at any time; not too much, not too little.

Find the sweet spot – be transparent and facilitate self-governance

How can leaders score well on the authority axis and the autonomy axis?

Let’s start working our way up the Team Autonomy axis. We know leaders can do so by being transparent to their team, giving them all information they need… but that’s just one part of the equation.

To build authority as a leader of an autonomous team, you have to give guidance and provide a sound explanation for your choice of direction. You provide a margin wherein the team should operate, and you’re being transparent about everything within that margin.

Authority autonomy self-governance Boardview

Autonomous teams are very good at finding out how they should be doing what. The leader of an autonomous team provides its team with a WHY… and then leaves the team to be, well, autonomous.

Next gen leaders set criteria for where NOT to go

The leader of an autonomous team provides a margin of what information may be important for the team to act upon. He points to a destination and roughly demarcates the area wherein valuable information can be harvested by the team.

A traditional, high authority leader tells his subservient team exactly where to look for information. A modern, medium authority leader gives his autonomous team an indication where not to look. Or rather, he develops a test so the team can identify when information or actions are certainly NOT valuable.

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The team perpetually runs test, judging everything they do, to check whether the information at hand is a suitable ‘how’ or ‘what’ to achieve the ‘why’; whether a certain action or tactic can contribute to achieving the higher goal.

Leader authority in autonomous teams comes from developing criteria on the basis of which the team can judge he merit of their own actions. Good criteria cause the team to be able to properly judge the effectiveness of their actions their selves, driving both productivity and team engagement. Good leadership is developing ‘tools’ for the team to verify which actions have value, and, crucially, which have not.

High authority – low team autonomy leaders

  • Tell exactly what to do.
  • “This information/action has value – look no further!”

High autonomy – low authority leaders

  • Tell anything and therewith nothing.
  • “This information/action may or may not have value – ehhm?”

The sweet spot:

High autonomy – medium authority leaders

  • Provide criteria for what NOT to do.
  • “This information/action demonstrably will not help us to achieve our strategy and it therefore has no value – look elsewhere and discover!”


By providing criteria for what certainly is not valuable, a leader puts a cap on what information or action can be useful, so autonomous teams won’t be flooded in possibly halfway relevant ‘information’ and going nowhere.

By not specifically spelling out what to do, teams are invited to think about new ways of achieving goals and they will develop a sense of ownership and become engaged.

In contrast to ‘high authority leaders’ saying ‘look no further’, teams are invited to look further and discover new ways to achieve the bigger goal. There is no cap on creativity. Rather, there are loose guidelines to where, in which field of business, teams can be creative and shoot for the moon.

When company strategy and the criteria based thereon are transparent and communicated in a clear format, team members will be able to judge the value of their ideas themselves. The leader can be effective, driving production without having to be actively authoritative.

Leading autonomous teams using the Growth Map

Using a Boardview Growth Map, leaders can be transparent about what they want to achieve and why. They can easily communicate the postcard destination to the rest of the organization. Autonomous teams can then suggest ways of getting there, specifying how to do what.

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