January 2024
The difference between something you are and something you have
featured article
Col Mike Jernigan
6 min read
Col Mike Jernigan explores the interplay between authority and influence
The phone rang at 3:30 in the morning. ‘Chief, sorry to wake you. A tugboat struck the drawbridge and it is stuck open.’ How does that happen?
The Public Health Officer stood in front of my desk and said, ‘We’ve had five raccoons test for rabies aboard the base.’ As he was speaking, my desk phone rang and a tenant commander told me that several of his Marines had lassoed a raccoon and were having a Raccoon Rodeo which currently had 8000 likes on social media. Of course they were.
I heard the duty phone ring and a Corporal answer it. After a few minutes, she came in to tell me that a man was on the line explaining ‘that space aliens were in the process of abducting his wife. What should I do?’ Hang up.
Chiefs of staff have a responsibility to coordinate the staff and ensure that the principal’s vision and direction are carried out. Additionally, they manage friction and serve as barometers of organisations. Chiefs of staff have two primary mechanisms to accomplish these tasks. The first is their authority and the second is their influence. Authority is easier both to understand and apply, but influence can have a broader effect over a longer time and wider audience. As I see it, authority is something you are: influence is something you have.
'Authority is something you are: influence is something you have.'
I was most recently the chief of staff for the organisation that is responsible for the United States Marine Corps’ East Coast bases – when the conversations I quoted at the beginning of this article took place. In each case, and in many others that accompany running a medium-sized city and several smaller towns, my response was a mixture of actions that I could authorise and what I needed to influence. The same is true for the complexity of the environments that you operate in as chiefs of staff.
A chief of staff’s authority comes from a source – whether it’s granted by law, corporate regulations, or structure. In military organisations, the chief of staff is the second- or third- most senior position (the difference being in organisations that have Deputy Commanders) and that person’s authority is clear. There are parallels in industry and academia where individuals serve as chiefs of staff but have additional responsibilities as a corporate officer or tenured faculty. People in these roles have responsibilities that are theirs in addition to those typically associated with ‘chief of staff-ing’ to a principal. I have a friend who is chief of staff to the President of a university and simultaneously has responsibilities as the Vice President for Human Resources. She has the authority to direct actions in the HR realm. In my examples above, I had the authority to direct the base Fire Chief to prepare a boat and a small four-wheel all-terrain vehicle in the event that somebody had a medical emergency and needed to be evacuated off of an island. Sometimes a chief of staff’s authority is less formal, perhaps when the principal announces, ‘So-and-So is now responsible for the XYZ completion/schedule/event/etc.’ Difficulties can arise when this transfer (of the principal’s authority to the chief of staff) is not clearly stated or understood. In some organisations the chief of staff is known as one of the ‘bosses’, in others not as much. Most of the work chiefs of staff do fall into these ambiguous situations. Subordinates know you sit next to ‘The Boss’ but are not sure if you are ‘their boss’. Authority works best when responsibilities are clear across the entire organisation.
It is in the situations where authority is unclear, ill-defined, or non-existent, that a chief of staff must use his or her most powerful tool – influence. If authority can be likened to addition – you add direction to a subordinate in order to get a work output sum – then influence is comparable to multiplication; you multiply influence across multiple people and departments and get a much greater product. Influence has a wider range of impact then does authority and is almost always required to solve complex challenges. In my examples above, I did not have any authority over state and national Departments of Transportation and Public Health yet needed their resources. I had to use my influence to get their assets to help resolve the challenges on the base.
You multiply influence across multiple people and departments and get a much greater product
If influence is so important, how then can it be grown and developed? The short answer is that influence is built by investing in relationships. Chiefs of staff can cultivate influence within and external to their organisations by being approachable and building trust.
Being approachable involves both accessibility and desire: people have to be able to find you and then they must want to talk to you. The access occurs both in and outside your office. American mathematician Richard Hamming, who was part of the Manhattan Project and whose later work forms the basis for how today’s mobile phones work, advocated working with an open door:
‘I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.’
It may be OK for a mathematician to ‘occasionally get clues’ as to what is going on around them and in their organisation but it is vital for a chief of staff to know the atmospherics of their team and ‘know what problems are worth working on’! Similarly, business schools have been teaching Managing by Wandering Around since the 1980s. Why? Because people begin to trust people they are familiar with. I have found that employees will tell me all kinds of things when I walk into their workspace or see them in the common area and ask, ‘what are you working on?’ I know some chiefs of staff who at a certain time of day or one day a week will answer their emails in person; they will get out of their office and walk over to someone else’s to give them the answer to a question or find out what they are thinking.
The second part of being approachable is getting along with people – the ‘want to talk to you’ above. Getting along with people is at its core being a good teammate. Complete your tasks in a timely manner. Give people room to complete theirs. Be patient. Learn to disagree without being disagreeable. Don’t be a prickly pear and take offence easily. Value people and be genuine. Other traits of being likeable may come to your mind and business bookshelves are filled every year with someone espousing the value of a particular virtue. Why the emphasis on getting along with others? Because people are unwilling to do more than the minimum for bosses they don’t trust. This constraint stifles innovation and is unhealthy for organisations. Getting along with people helps accelerate their ability – and desire – to trust you. Abraham Lincoln provides a historical example; he was a master at getting along with disparate people. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin highlights Lincoln’s understanding of people and quotes him in her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln: ‘In order to “win a man to your cause”, you must first reach his heart, as it is “the great high road to his reason”.’
'Sometimes ‘different versions of right’ are acceptable.'
A third aspect of being approachable is an ability to entertain opposing views. Teammates will bring the chief of staff a wide assortment of issues with varying perspectives. They want to know that you will hear them out, understand the advantages and potential drawbacks of each option. In fact, it is this giving of options to the principal that is integral to the role of the chief of staff. You cannot well advise your boss if you don’t understand the factors at play. You can’t understand the key factors if teammates don’t tell you the subtleties. Teammates are unlikely to tell you subtleties and perceptions if you shut down all the options save the ‘right’ one. Clearly, the principal’s vision and direction trump the conversation but sometimes ‘different versions of right’ are acceptable. Lincoln was effective at considering all the perspectives. One of his colleagues observed that he ‘understood the importance … of integrating all the elements … of [a group of people] including the impracticable, the Pharisees, the better-than-thou declaimers, the long-haired men and the short-haired women’.
Each of these traits above lead to developing the chief of staff’s main asset: trust. Trust is the currency of effectiveness in groups of people. A chief of staff must have the trust of the principal, but also of everybody else in the organisation. General, and later Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis believes that ‘operations occur at the speed of trust’. It is the chief of staff’s responsibility to develop that trust across all levels of the organisation. I have learned three techniques to help develop trust in an organisation and consequently improve the quality and speed of decisions across its breadth and depth. They seem simple but their value far outweighs the effort to employ them.
  • Explain the rationale behind your decisions when you can. I have found this gains trust and equity in future decisions whenever you cannot explain the ‘why’ behind a decision for either time constraints or sensitivity reasons. This explanation of your thought process serves as a currency of trust and helps develop subordinates to both support your style of decision-making and make their own decisions within the framework of the organisation.
  • Say ‘please’ when directing the course of action required. Everybody knows this simple courtesy is not required from senior leaders yet I have found it has near magical qualities of serving as a lubricant on the inherent friction in decision-making and specific implementation. It provides a buffer to encourage subordinate leaders to make decisions and risk criticism.
  • Be trustworthy. I have found three traits that engender my colleagues’ trust and confidence in my ability to make and manage decisions.
A Chief of Staff must be:
  • an effective arbiter of competing priorities
  • a trusted agent for leaders of all levels in the organisation
  • a practitioner of lateral communication who understands its value in keeping the organisation operating at peak efficiency.
When you have authority, use it in a gracious and even-handed manner.
The key to understanding influence and authority is to recognise when you have one, both, or neither. When you have authority, use it in a gracious and even-handed manner. You will have plenty of opportunities to employ your authority in the future – how you apply it now determines whether you generate resistance or support for future applications. Influence is like knowing how to swim – better to have developed the skill before you need it. Foster your potential influence by building relationships and demonstrating approachability and trustworthiness. When faced with situations where you have neither influence or authority, it is important to realise that you have three choices: seek the authorities required to resolve the challenge, develop the required lanes of influence, or recognise that it is not your problem to solve. In my examples above, I had neither the authority nor influence to resolve the potential space abduction. It may not surprise you to hear that I did not spend one minute thinking about my lack of authority and influence in that situation!
People with influence and authority – particularly chiefs of staff – don’t coast. There is always a new person to the organisation, an emerging variable to an existing project, or the next previously unknown challenge. Effective chiefs of staff use authority and influence as down payments to make their organisation operate more smoothly. Leadership author J. Oswald Sanders explains, ‘Achievement is bought on the time-payment plan, with a new installment required each day. Fresh drafts are constantly being drawn, and when payment ceases, leadership wanes.’
Author Bio
Col Mike Jernigan
United States Marine, Director of CSA Mentorship Program
Certified Chief of Staff®
Mike has 30 years’ experience as a United States Marine. He has served as interim Chief of Staff for U. S. Forces Japan and as Chief of Staff for Marine Corps Installations East. He currently is the Director of the Mentorship Program with the Chief of Staff Association.
Other highlights from his military career include commanding 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, Combat Logistics Battalion 3, and the Marine Corps Engineer School. He served as a planner at Marine Corps Forces Pacific, the Lead Strategist for U. S. Pacific Command, the Engineer and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Branch Head at Headquarters Marine Corps, and the Director of Logistics and Installations for U. S. Forces Japan.
He holds degrees from Auburn University, the Naval Postgraduate School, and Pakistan’s National Defense University and has military deployments to Cuba, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Mike is passionate about the value productive Chiefs of Staff add to organisations and recognises to be successful, a Chief of Staff must be an effective arbiter of competing priorities, a trusted agent for leaders of all levels in the organisation, and a practitioner of lateral communication in order to understand its value in keeping organisations operating at peak efficiency.