David Heinemeier Hansson

May 9, 2022

Everybody loses when legitimate power isn't exercised

Just because you have a high-ranking title, doesn't mean you're automatically right about everything. More junior employees can surely hold better insights, field smarter ideas, or judo solutions toward simplicity in a given circumstance. But it does mean you should be mostly right, most of the time, or that title isn't vested in legitimate power.

A ranking title is a recognition of seniority and proficiency. One that you should only have been granted because you indeed do have good insights, the experience to substantiate them, and the competence to plot a path to their completion. These factors make it's your duty to exercise your judgement and competence for the betterment of more junior coworkers and the organization at large.

And this is where I've seen some senior folks falter. Become afraid of their own shadow. Retreat into some relativistic cave where all opinions, ideas, and insights are presumed equally good, equally deserving of first-principles reasoning, and resulting in an arm's length "who am I to judge" distancing. This helps no one.

Legitimate power drawn from competence and experience is wasted if not exercised. Junior folks learn less and slower if they are not exposed to decisive action by people who know stuff and have seen stuff. The organization swerves in its mission if not built on a foundation of decisions and directions made and set by the people most qualified to do so.

None of this is incompatible with a culture where it's allowed to question the captain. Which is the stereotype of the bad old days when copilots would let planes crash rather than oppose authority or nurses would let doctors harm patients to the same deference.

We don't have to pick between these extremes. We can recognize that legitimate power is vested in being highly competence and experienced, and that this renders better decisions most of the time, but also that everyone occasionally gets it wrong and need correction.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.