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Nine Lessons On The Proper Use Of Retail Authority

Furniture World Magazine


Here’s how to use your authority in a way that produces true leadership.

by David Lively

Four men stand chatting causally in a golf club locker room after their round of 18 holes when a ringing phone interrupts their conversation.

"Sure, I can talk," says the man who answers the call. "You're out shopping? That's nice."

His eavesdropping friends smile knowingly at each other.

"You want to buy that new living room and dining room group? Okay… and they'll include the custom rug for an extra five thousand? Sure, why not?"

The grins grow wider among the listeners.

"You want to book a week-long vacation in Hilton Head? What’s that, they're holding the price at ten thousand? Sounds like a bargain to me! Let’s go for two weeks instead!"

Slowly, the smiles fade to expressions of envy.

"And you want to give the builder the go-ahead for the new outdoor kitchen and pool? Fifty-five thousand if we say yes today? Sounds fair… sure, that's fine."

The listeners exchange glances of amazement.

"Okay, honey, see you later. I love you, too," says the man as he ends the call.
He looks slyly at his friends and asks, "Whose phone is this, anyhow?"

Who’s In Charge Here?

Perhaps you can recall a time when, like the man in the story above, someone claimed authority and made decisions outside his or her jurisdiction. Stepping outside the bounds of principled leadership can cause costly mistakes and injure relationships. This occurs all the time in furniture stores between parents and their children, and between bosses and their employees. Abuse of authority can be blatant as in the story at the beginning of this article, or so subtle that the person in authority may be totally unaware of any abuse. Yet when abuse occurs, it almost always leads to a crisis of leadership. That’s why it is important for furniture store owners and top managers to think about the lessons covered in this article.

While there is a need for authority whenever a group of people come together to achieve something together, authority should not be used to manipulate or control. Nor should it relegate people to drones.

Each of the nine lessons that follow point to two basic truths. The first is that principled leadership must be used to serve the people who are being led. The second truth is that in order to gain the authority to lead, an effective leader must first submit to a greater set of principles.

Only to the degree that we submit to some principled rules of authority can we truely lead. For example, a policeman must first submit to the law before he can gain authority. For a military officer to gain authority, he or she must first submit to those of greater rank. Finally, we’ve seen that business leaders must submit authority to their boards, boards must represent the stock holders, and companies must serve their customers and the greater good. Failure to do so resulted in the Great Recession we’ve witnessed for the last two plus years. It’s evident that those who attempt to operate in authority without coming under the authority of others are both illegitimate and dangerous.

Lesson #1: Balance Responsibility and Authority: The measure of a person’s authority is in direct proportion to his or her responsibility. For instance, little responsibility means little authority and a lot of responsibility equals a lot of authority. Authority without responsibility is frightening because someone has authority to take action without responsibility for the consequences. Responsibility without authority is frustrating. It is frustrating when a person has responsibility to perform a task without being given the necessary authority to complete their assignment. There should be a balance of both in your organization.

Lesson #2: Submission must be voluntarily: Author John Maxwell says that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk. Wise leaders remain careful not to demand submission from their followers. They understand that obedience works best when it is a voluntary act. Once people recognize the trustworthiness of the leader due to his or her wisdom, caring nature, authenticity and competency, they will more than likely follow. People search for such leaders! Leaders should not force, coerce or manipulate a person to follow them; which leads to the next point…

Lesson #3: Authority is received, not taken: Like the golfer who grabbed the wrong phone, taking authority is to assume a position with or without recognition from others. Instead, a better way to step into a place of authority is to receive it. But where does authority come from? It comes from those in front of you and/or from those behind you. Those in front of you are your leaders who can delegate authority to you. Authority can also be granted from those following you. You need this bi-directional confirmation from leaders and followers if you expect to move things ahead with legitimate authority.

Lesson #4: Authority is to protect and to serve: Like it says on the side of many police vehicles, authority is ‘To Protect and to Serve.’ Authority should only be used to protect and to serve the people who are following the leader. Any other use of authority to control and manipulate people or to sing the praises of the leader is unethical. Too many ego-centric leaders in our industry use their positions to gain influence and prestige for themselves. When this happens, people become stepping stones to fulfill the leader’s vision for his or her career while the people are left out in the cold with no vision that serves them.

Lesson #5: Those in authority will be judged with a greater judgment: If authority means responsibility, then responsibility means judgment. Those who accept authority to lead people should not be surprised when criticism is hurled at them. Nor should they forget that those in authority are held to a higher standard.

Lesson #6: Authority has limits: Just because a person has authority doesn’t mean that it is unlimited. Leaders must locate the boundaries of their responsibility and operate within that sphere. Many problems have been created in furniture organizations where boundaries were either not clearly stated or were violated. It is also true that store owners and managers, out of fear or timidity, abdicate their responsibility to exercise adequate authority. This can result in employees who are not grounded in these nine lessons, stepping in to fill a leadership vacuum, with negative consequences.

Lesson #7: The position can be more important than perfection: An executive position carries the weight of authority even when the person filling that position is flawed. This is a tough idea for many people in our society to understand. By honoring and respecting the position regardless of who fills it, employees can benefit themselves and their organizations. This concept cuts both ways. Just as people in authority should strive to earn the right to lead, so should people whose job it is to submit to authority, recognize their responsibility to, within limits, respect and honor the position a person in authority represents.

Lesson #8: Authority should always follow the good parenting model: Being a good parent can teach us more about the proper exercise of authority than any other experience. Parents who truly love their children use their authority to protect and to serve them. They would give their lives to protect their children and exhaust themselves in serving them, hoping that their children will accomplish more than they did.

Lesson #9: Follow the Road to Magnificence: I recently visited Mudd Advertising in Cedar Falls, Iowa, one of the nation’s largest family owned advertising agencies and audio-visual production houses. The company employs more than 150 talented, dedicated and passionate individuals who love it when their customers succeed.
The three-story atrium in the lobby at Mudd Advertising is dominated by a quote painted on the wall behind the receptionist. It is signed by Ken Blanchard, author of business bestsellers The One Minute Manager, Leading At A Higher Level, and his newest book, “Who Killed Change?” Blanchard wrote:

“I think people want to be magnificent. It is the job of the leader to bring out that magnificence in people and to create an environment where they feel safe and supported and ready to do the best job possible in accomplishing key goals. This responsibility is a sacred trust that should not be violated. The opportunity to guide others to their fullest potential should not be taken lightly. As leaders, we hold the lives of others in our hands. These hands need to be gentle and caring and always available for support.”

This is the true role of authority in an organization, whether it is a family or a family business.

Principled Authority Is…

  •  A delivery manager who tells the salesperson about problems with an order.
  • A company president who cares about the goals and desires of
    individual employees.
  • A CEO who submits to his Board of Directors.
  • A sales manager who doesn’t play favorites.
  • A salesperson who turns over a customer when they ask for someone else.
  • An office manager who shares recognition for a successful new idea.
  • A store manager who makes sure every department is treated fairly.
  • A president who casts a vision for a new store opening.
  • A sales manager who accepts criticism from a salesperson.

Unprincipled Authority is...

  • A sales manager who tries to throw her weight around on the dock.
  • A salesperson who manipulates a store’s ups system for her own
  • A delivery manager who lies about why the truck is late.
  • A driver who doesn’t take care of the truck.
  • A CEO who makes employees afraid that they will lose their jobs
  • A salesperson who posts uncomplimentary information about management on industry websites.
  • An office manager who doesn’t train people on new systems.
  • A president who takes off every afternoon to go golfing.

David Lively, partner at The Lively Merchant, has over 20 years hands-on experience in the home furnishings industry, from the warehouse to the sales floor to the boardroom. He has walked the walk and talked the talk from the family-owned, single-site store to the multi-state, multi-million dollar operation; from sales training to computer programming; from warehouse construction and operations to financial management; from new store construction to complete renovation. Twice named to the "Beyond the Top 100" list of independent retailers and 1997 "Ohio Retailer of the Year."

David's wisdom was won on the front lines of a furniture store and his battle scars have given him compassion for counseling today's retail warrior. David’s experience has led him to address the issues of the transfer of authority, responsibility and wealth from one furniture store generation to the next. The surviving legacy of your family business depends on your plan for transition, and David has developed a system for helping to identify goals, strengths and opportunities during this crucial time.

Read more of David Lively’s articles posted to the furninfo.com website. You can reach him by calling 740.415.3192 or email him at davidL@furninfo.com. David has offered free phone consultations to any FURNITURE WORLD readers who would like to talk about topics related to family business transition.