What is Authority?

943 views . 25 Sep 2020

Many people tend to confuse leadership and authority and sometimes use the two terms interchangeably. In this lesson we take a look at the two concepts of leadership and authority, show you the differences between them and make you understand how this can help you play your part in the exercise of leadership.


Many people tend to confuse leadership and authority and sometimes use the two terms interchangeably.  Let us look at the meaning of authority.

Authority is power entrusted for service. Authority is a role

Authority is a transactional relationship: trust and power in exchange of services

One can lead from formal  authority granted by an external body or Informal Authority is earned by providing a service that is does not exist but is needed, by representing the underrepresented or through affiliation.

There are different kinds of authorities,

There is traditional authority,  which is tied to a tradition or custom like the monarchs. There is charismatic authority that  rests on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person.

There is also the rational or legal authority whose legitimacy comes from legal order or laws that have been enacted.

With authority, every role in any organization, community, position or family carries distinctive expectations.  The purpose of authority is to provide protection, direction, control, create norms , order, security and sometimes representation

Let's have a look at what each of these expectations mean;

Direction- where the team is headed and what is the vision. Protection-  offer protection from external threats. Norm- provide values that will ground the team’s activities. Order- resolving conflicts and keeping things calm.  

Let’s have a look at a short scenario;

Jane founded Fashionista Inc, which specialized in custom made clothing, from alterations to newly made men's suits and shoes. As the CEO of the company, she hired half a dozen people to work for her. 

When she started out, she laid out all the responsibilities and roles. She also defined the problems, made all the decisions and instructed her employees on tasks to undertake. Her employees, trusting her judgement, made sure to comply with the set rules and guidelines, and also follow her vision. 

As their boss, that's the way it was.

Being CEO, Jane was the authority figure in the company. She was responsible for providing direction, protection, norms and order for her employees.

Authority figures are also the people you recognize as experts in various fields or knowledgeable  for example parents, teachers or police officers among other  when faced with a routine problem, are experts who come up with a solution.

For instance, James, a car mechanic exercises his authority by telling Job, one of his customers, what's wrong with his car and what he's going to do to fix it. It's not a complex situation. 

James is an expert, and because of this, Job granted him the authority to determine what his car’s problem was and how to fix it.

Or Daniel, a doctor who writes a prescription for a patient. In this case, James and Daniel both hold positions of authority as experts.

The expectations of someone in authority can sometimes be impossible to meet.