Field Notes

Can responsibility be made commensurate with authority?  Sí, se puede. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Peter Drucker crossed paths with a lot of remarkable people. One of them was civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez, who will be honored tomorrow during Cesar Chavez Day, an official holiday in California.

After a meeting between Drucker and Chavez in the early 1980s, the United Farm Workers president and an aide discussed some of the topics that the men had covered. (A transcript of their conversation is available in the Drucker Archives.) Among other things, Chavez recalled, Drucker advised him to “keep volunteers working and make a lot of demands on them.” The two also talked quite a bit about the steady flow of immigration from Mexico and how the UFW “could have a great influence” on the issue.

But one particularly crucial exchange concerned how to manage a decentralized organization with a lot of people in the field (both literally and figuratively). Chavez recounted Drucker’s advice as follows: “He said it was dangerous to hand out authority without responsibility, that if we decentralize we have to make people responsible and accountable. Otherwise. . . . it would be chaos.”

It’s a lesson that extends well beyond the UFW. Who, after all, hasn’t seen a leader (whether a toxic boss or a Third World dictator) who asserted his authority without exercising responsibility? And who among us hasn’t been held accountable for situations beyond our control—made responsible where we had no real authority?

For Drucker, few principles were more sacrosanct: “Whoever claims authority thereby assumes responsibility,” he wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “But whoever assumes responsibility thereby claims authority. The two are different sides of the same coin.”

In Concept of the Corporation, Drucker was even more blunt: “Authority without responsibility is tyranny, and responsibility without authority is impotence.”

Where in government or business do you see the most dangerous mismatches between authority and responsibility?