On my first day of work as a young upstart, a colleague pulled me into a conference room to warn me about the company’s unofficial rules.
“Do everything by the book,” he said. “Keep your mouth shut in meetings, and don’t volunteer any brilliant ideas unless you’re given explicit permission.”
The culture at this revered insurance company was one of subservience. A novel idea could land you on the boss’s shit list. Too many of them would get you fired.
But then, fraud hit.
The cultural distaste for creativity and new ideas led to technological inadequacies, leaving us vulnerable to unscrupulous employees.
A management shakeup ensued, and a new boss took over — an outsider who tasked us to come up with solutions.
A week into his tenure, he demanded solutions. None came. We all thought we’d get in trouble since we had never been permitted to share our thoughts before. Slowly, over the next few weeks, we’d throw out ideas, just to gauge the enemy fire.
Some of our novel concepts were terrible, but nobody got in trouble. Instead, he demanded more of them. He even sanctioned a few experiments, some of which failed. Still, nobody lost their job for failing.
It soon became clear. He had given us permission to express our creativity and put our ideas into action without fear of failure. Within a few months, we took bigger chances, suggesting wild concepts that would have been unthinkable under the old regime.
Not only did we feel a sense of accomplishment, but we also revered our new boss, anointing him a god-like status. He had given us freedom, set us free, and we made him our hero.
My old boss practiced a form of permission leadership — when an authority figure grants permission to pursue a course of action previously frowned upon or discouraged.
- Permitting followers to profess taboo beliefs without fear of rebuke.
- Permitting employees to express their creativity without fear of failure.
- Permitting constituents to act upon their urges and desires without being held accountable.
Granting “permission” is like granting freedom. When it’s offered, it’s rarely refused. And if it’s subsequently taken away (or threatened to be taken away), people will rebel.
Those who gain this freedom often pledge their loyalty to the authority figure who granted it. That’s what I experienced when working for the manager who encouraged our creative expression. Unfortunately, he went too far for the white-shoe conservatives who had been running the company for decades.
The executive committee pushed him out in favor of someone more traditional for the insurance business. Those most loyal to our old boss revolted in the only way we could. We found new jobs.
That’s a small example of the kind of loyalty permission leadership breeds. But it’s not just the corporate world where this tool ensnares the masses. It’s perhaps most effective when used in politics and society, and it’s easy to implement.
How to exploit permission leadership.
First, find the hidden desire among your subordinates or followers.
- What do they wish to express or do that is currently forbidden to them?
- What beliefs do they hold that are currently considered unacceptable?
- What freedom do they yearn for that is currently denied to them?
Once you’ve identified that repressed desire, permit them to pursue it by explicitly stating so or leading by example. Ideally, you should pursue a combination of both.
When your subordinates test out their newfound freedom, become their cheerleader, and defend them against critics. A good manager will insulate their subordinates from blowback against the expression of adventurous concepts or failed experiments.
Textbook examples of this exist in politics. Well-intentioned or not, politicians will cheerlead their followers, thereby enhancing their own status as defenders of the masses and cementing a fierce loyalty. It’s this type of loyalty that creates concern when it transforms into blind fealty.
Permission leadership can turn deadly.
It’s merely a tool, but one you can use for good or evil. Let’s suppose a leader were to grant permission to act selfish, arrogant, racist, sexist, or even violent. Those inclined to believe such things will embrace that freedom.
When an authority grants you permission to do what you’ve always wanted to do, express what you were too afraid to express, and say out loud what you always kept inside, how could you not accept the invitation?
And once you taste that freedom and the authority figure says more, more, more, how could you not feel unflinching loyalty?
There’s no shortage of historical examples of exploiting authority and permission as a force for evil.
In Nazi Germany, Hitler used the latent feelings of antisemitism from World War I to rile up a violent minority of Germans that thrust him into power. He gave those followers permission to express and act on what they already believed without fear of consequence.
The Enron scandal of 2001 resulted from a sort of permission leadership gone awry. Top executives at the company were given implicit (if not explicit) permission to create questionable and illegal accounting schemes resulting in its eventual downfall.
Historical lessons like these show that when you’re in authority and you license questionable practices, many will follow through. As a leader, when you say, “It’s okay,” it relieves constituents of culpability and eliminates any fear of consequences, at least in their minds.
Those who embrace their newfound freedom may show you staunch loyalty. This kind of reverence and adulation can intoxicate you with power. Like any leadership tool, wield it wisely and responsibly, and be wary of those who exploit it to gain your favor.
Putting it all together
Like any leadership tool, permission leadership is neither good nor evil. A politician can use it to empower disenfranchised groups to assert their rights. A business leader can exploit it to convince underlings it’s okay to skirt the law to put up better numbers.
As authority figures, it’s our responsibility to employ the tool with care. As stakeholders, it’s our responsibility to reject leaders who abuse it.