Political philosopher Robert Wolf (1999) wrote, “Authority is the right to command, and correlatively, the right to be obeyed.” Authority can also be defined as being in a position to wield power. The exercise of power is highly dependent on context. This essay will explore authority and the framework for its use.
Max Weber (2017) was a German intellectual whose work helped to found the field of sociology. One of Weber’s contributions was in describing authority. Weber noted 3 distinct types of authority: traditional authority is based on custom, tradition, and cultural norms; rational-legal authority is clearly defined powers as ascribed to a title or position; and, charismatic authority is based on the possessor’s ability to inspire others. Rational-legal and charismatic authority are the most germane to discussion of management and leadership.
Managers use rational-legal authority; their powers are defined and codified in the laws, policies, procedures, and culture that regulate the organization that they are associated with. A person acting under this type of authority has the power to sanction. A sanction, in this context, can be positive or negative; in other words, a manager exercising their authority has the power to punish and reward their subordinates. In turn, they are also under the authority of their superiors who have the power to sanction them.
The leader generally exercises charismatic authority. Because of this, identification based trust is important in maintaining their leadership role. Identification based trust is dependent on relationships and mutual knowledge of intentions between the leader and the people they work with and/or their followers. The loss of this trust in this type of relationship causes the loss of the relationship and/or the follower.
In a manager/subordinate relationship the power to sanction exists regardless of any trust issues. Because the manager’s power is based on their relationship with the organization the subordinate who desires to maintain their affiliation to that organization will continue to follow the directions of their manager. When the charismatic leader loses trust, they lose their leadership position.
Another issue is scope. A manager’s power is based on their relationship with an organization, therefore their power is very limited outside of the organization. A leader’s power is based on their actions rather than any office they hold. A good leader can hold power in multiple organizations amongst many classes of people; their power limited only by their ability to project that power.
Inherent in the idea of authority is the exercise of power. I will explore power over the next several posts.
Max Weber. (2017, October 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 19, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Max_Weber&oldid=804629047
Wolff, R.P. (1999). The conflict between authority and autonomy. In W.A. Edmundson, (Ed.), The duty to obey the law (pp. 63-74). Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.