Merriam-Webster states that authority is “the power to give orders or make decisions.” Another aspect of this definition claims that authority is “the power or right to direct or control someone or something.”
This is probably the most obvious definition of leadership authority. It may be the one that most leaders depend upon. We often equate leadership authority with power. We might long for the ability to order or control.
Andy Crouch, the editor of Christianity Today, offers this definition of authority:
Authority is the capacity for meaningful action.
Notice that this definition has two important nuances over the dictionary definition. First, it is defined in terms of capacity instead of being defined in terms of a “rights” or “power.” Second, it is defined also by its outcome–meaningful action. This places authority in a more benevolent light. Leadership actions should carry meaningful action. They should truly benefit someone.
There are at least three primary ways leadership authority can be gained. Each one has its consequences.
Authority Through Title
Titled authority best fits the dictionary definition of authority. This is authority because one bears the title. This is authority in a hierarchical structure. This authority is most often experienced in military or business settings. This is power to influence because the title carries the ability to make decisions, give orders, or control. This kind of authority can also be experienced in any societal institution, including the family or the church. This type of authority does not automatically lean towards negative consequences. That all depends on the character of the one who holds the title.
Authority Through Expertise
Another type of authority is attributed to those who have acquired or possess specific knowledge or expertise. This has become a more powerful form of authority in a global context of constant innovation and technological change. In this version of authority, leadership influence is attributed regardless of title. It is attributed out of necessity and esteem. We follow and take direction from those who know what we do not know and can lead us toward solutions. This type of authority does not have to come with a title. It is attributed because of the knowledge or expertise one has.
Authority Through Trust
I actually believe that this is the most powerful form of authority and best fits Crouch’s definition. This is granted authority. This type of authority might come with a title or not. It might be displayed through expertise or not. This is granted authority because of the profound ability for followers to truly trust the one who is having influence. The actual authority to influence derives from the follower. It flows up instead of down. This is profound. Followers follow because they want to and fully trust the leader.
Meaningful action can flow from any of these three forms of authority, but when it flows from granted authoirty based on trust–it can multiply exponentially. This is authority based solely on the character of the leader. This is the authority that we as leaders should long for.
From which source does your leadership authority derive? Are you aiming for granted authority?
“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:26-28