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on Leading the Next Generation


7 Ways Leaders Lose Authority with Students

Recently, I overheard some students making fun of an executive director at a local community theatre program here in Atlanta. The students were 18-years-old, and they had been a part of this program before. Now, their entertainment was at the expense of this director. I felt badly for her, but the laughter sparked a question in me.

How did this leader lose her authority with her students?

She isn’t unlikeable. She has a good sense of humor and can be fun to be around. So how did she plummet from a leader students respect to the brunt of a joke?

What Do We Mean by Authority?
Authority is a fuzzy word. It conjures up all kinds of emotions inside of us when we hear it. Here, I am defining the term as an inward, moral authority that comes from the life a leader lives, not just his or her position. It’s clout. It is inward power earned by the leader — not automatically included with a title. As parents, it’s what we all want with our kids; as coaches, we want it with our players; as teachers we hope for it with our students; and as employers we desire it with our staff. Perhaps the best way to describe how it is earned is to list how it’s lost by so many leaders.

How Leaders Lose Authority with Students

Hypocrisy: Failing to live up to what you say.
This issue came up first with students. The quickest way leaders lose their moral authority with students is to fail to live the life they demand of others. Your words and your actions don’t match. It’s funny. Kids may put up with this in their peers, but not their leaders.

Cowardice: An unwillingness to demonstrate courage.
Regardless of how brilliant or unspectacular you are as a leader, if you fail to show any courage when times are tough, students’ respect for you will usually diminish. When a decision must be made or a step taken — they expect the leader to step forward and take it, not shrink as a coward.

Posing: Pretending to be someone you are not.
This one is huge with kids today. When adult leaders “pose” as someone they’re not in reality, it’s not only a turn-off, it’s a joke. For students, the only thing worse than being uncool is being unreal. When adults try to act young or hip, and it’s forced or comes across inauthentic — it’s a death sentence for student respect.

Irrelevance: Having no current success stories.
Students lose respect when all they ever hear from their leader is stories from “back in the day.” At first these stories work, but if teens don’t see current stories lived out in front of them, eventually they don’t take you seriously. They begin looking for someone who can do it now. Something current.

White lies: Exaggerating the truth.
This is a double-edged sword. Most students today admit to telling little white lies. Yet, those students lose respect when adult leaders do it. When asked to report on how a game, a project or a performance turned out — they admire leaders who tell it like it is, and don’t make the stats elastic or plastic.

Incompetence: The inability to hone your gift and excel.
This is true for followers of all ages. Leaders lose their moral authority when they can’t demonstrate they have developed their gift or talent and become excellent. This doesn’t mean they expect leaders to be good at everything, just something. It’s the law of respect: Folks follow leaders who are stronger than they are.

Fuzziness: Failure to focus the team on the primary goal.
Finally, you’ll lose authority if you are scattered and cannot focus your instruction to your team. This is why leaders are necessary. Some of your students are smart — but they need you to direct them with clarity. When you don’t, you have a hole in your pocket and you lose a little moral authority.

Keep in mind — it is possible for you to be liked by students as a friend, but not respected as a leader. We all must decide what we want most: Buddies to hang out with or young people who follow our moral authority to a worthwhile destination.

It’s your call.


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  1. Aaron Chavez on February 10, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Wow, I am glad you wrote this blog. It really makes sense. Those are the 7 things we have to watch out for. Thank you this blog really hit home.

  2. Jeff Randleman on February 10, 2011 at 11:30 am

    I agree! These are crucial areas. One other that I would add though, and it kinda covers a few of the ones you listed, is moral failure. The teens I lead see that I place a high priority on my wife and family. Sometimes they laugh at me for being so cheesy, but they know without any doubt that my wife is one of my highest priorities, and that I will not allow myself to succumb to temptation in this area. I think that if I placed my wife and family lower in my priorities, that would cause me to lose authority as well.

    Thanks for the great thoughts!

  3. Shine51617 on February 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    As a leader of students and families, I want to thank you for the incredible insights on this article as well as the other work you do. Your Gen IY is one of the best books for this generation i have read. Keep up the good work.

  4. disqus_cCsvS7Bi3o on February 13, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Great list. Thank you. I might add to it: PRIDE: Failure to say “I am sorry” when needed. People love to see the strength AND weaknesses of a leader. When a leader makes a mistake, the most powerful responds would be for him or her to say “I am sorry” even in front of the people he or she leads.

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7 Ways Leaders Lose Authority with Students