Leadership Authority-Where Does It Come From?



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

Influence Without Authority


There is a premium today on the ability to influence without authority. We live in a postheroic leadership era where many people do not follow leaders because of their title, but because of their ability to inspire and create change without coercion.

Allow me to contrast two types of leaders. The first is Donald Trump, who was most recently on stage during the Republican Presidential Primary Debate in Cleveland. The other is Patrisse Cullors, one of the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter. One you know well, the other you may never have heard of. One is gay, the other has been accused of being a misogynist. Both have had outsized influence. Netiher has any direct authority over your life. Both are hoping to create change through influence. One has primarily carved out an empire through power. The other has stirred a passion that resonates and has helped to create a movement. One may be a forgotten asterisk come the fall of 2016. The other may be a catalyst for lasting change.

Influence carries the meaning the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen.

Authority means the power to give an order or make decisions; the power or right to direct or control someone or something.

Do you hear the difference?

One creates change directly.

The other creates change indirectly.

One causes change without force.

The other coerces change. 


5 Consequences of Having Authority Without Influence

1. Your leadership scope is limited by your power.

2. Your leadership foundation rests on coercion alone.

3. Your followers HAVE to follow because of fear of retribution.

4. Your leadership influence dies with you.

5. You will be remembered . . . for all of the wrong reasons.

5 Consequences of Having Influence Without Authority

1. Your leadership scope is limited only by your reach.

2. Your leadership foundation rests on your inspirational message and a just cause.

3. Your followers CHOOSE to follow based on the hope of a brighter future.

4. Your leadership influence has the opportunity to live way beyond you.

5. You may not be remembered . . . but the cause will live on.

Jesus of Nazareth, the greatest influencer who ever lived, stated, 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 a ransom for many.

(photo credit)

Authority Unplugged


Peter on Flickr

Leadership positions rightly come with vested authority.

If you don’t have some discernible measure of authority in your leadership position, run and get out now! Yet, power and authority are intoxicating.

Authority can become the drug of choice for a leader.

Leaders can see their positions and titles as synonymous with their authority.

The wrong view of authority can lead to domination, manipulation, and outsized ego.

The consequences for followers are subjugation and servitude.

This picture of abusive authority can be equally true for the spiritual leader as the secular one.

Sometimes the spiritual leader can be even more manipulative because of the spiritual element. 

What should be the correct view and use of authority?

As spiritual leaders how do we channel our authority towards serving others and not towards placing others in servitude to us?

What does leadership authority unplugged from all of its cultural trappings really look and feel like?

I am on a biblical journey to discover how Scripture addresses the topic of leadership authority. I still have a long way to go. The primary word for “authority” in the New Testament is “exousia.” It means “the right to do something or the right over something.” It is the power to decide and act.

There are two principles I have discovered that I want to highlight in this post. The first is found in the example of Jesus and the second is found in the teaching of Paul.

In John 5:25-30 Jesus is recounting for the Jews that he can do nothing of his own accord. All that he does he does at the behest of and according to the will of the Father. Jesus is demonstrating that there is a functional authority in play between the Father and the Incarnate Son. In verse 27 Jesus specifically states that the Father has given him the authority to execute judgment, because of his identity as Messiah. In verse 30 Jesus continues to highlight his functional submission to the Father by stating “my judgment is just . . . because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Here lies the first principle of right perspective on authority:

Our positional authority must always be submitted to the will of God who granted it to us.

It aids us to remember that all authority is derived authority. We only have positional power because a sovereign God granted it to us. Therefore it is rightly used when it is properly submitted to him. This is a sure check on misplaced and misused authority. This does not mean we will not have to make some hard and unpopular decisions. It does not mean that we can shirk our leadership responsibilities. It simply means that we begin each day by submitting the authority that is on loan to us back to the Father who granted it.

In 2 Corinthians 10 Paul is reminding the Corinthians of his rightful authority as an apostle of Christ. Through both 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, he has had to deal with some specific problems among the congregants of the church in Corinth. It is clear that there were some among the church who doubted Paul’s apostolic authority. In the midst of his defense Paul gives us our second principle:

The primary purpose of our positional authority is always to build up and not to tear down.

In verse eight Paul states, “For even if I boast a little too much of our authority , which the Lord gave me for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed.” Paul clearly points to the aim of his apostolic authority, which is to build up the community of believers. This does not mean that you can avoid the necessary hard conversations with individuals. it does mean that you do so with a proper motive. Your aim is correction and restoration, not shame and condemnation.

If we remembered these two principles alone related to our use of authority we would be well on our way to living out a Christ-centered servant leadership. Our starting point is the submission of our positional authority to the Lord. The purpose of our positional authority is for the edification of others.

This will ultimately allow you to lead from a foundation of granted authority from those you lead, rather than an authority based on your title alone.

What are your thoughts?


All Authority Is Derived Authority


In John’s gospel, there is an intriguing interchange between Jesus and Pilate, the Roman governor that ultimately allowed the execution of Jesus.  In John 18 and 19, Jesus has been delivered over to Pilate for trial in the hope that he might be found guilty of something worthy of death.  Pilate asks Jesus a series of questions about his identity and purpose.  Ultimately Pilate begins to fear that Jesus might actually be who he claims to be–God.  He questions Jesus one more time, “Where are you from?”  But Jesus refuses to answer.  If Jesus had answered according to his human nature and said Bethlehem, Pilate would have discounted him immediately, as Bethlehem was a small, obscure town with no reputation.  If Jesus had answered according to his divine nature and said Heaven, Pilate might have accused him of being crazy.  The real issue was not Jesus hometown, but his nature and identity.  In the midst of Jesus’ silence, Pilate makes a statement that trumpets his own position of power and authority, hoping to coerce Jesus into guilt or declaration.  Pilate says, “You will not speak to me?  Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”  Jesus must offer a response to this statement because Pilate is dealing in pride and is claiming ultimate authority–as many leaders are prone to do.  Jesus answers him with a reply that every earthly leader must pay attention to.  In verse 11 Jesus states, “You would have no authority over me unless it had been given you from above.”  Jesus could not allow Pilate to think he is a god when there is only one with all power and authority.

Authority is one of those funny leadership words, that as Christians, we are not quite sure how to handle.  

As spiritual leaders, we do not want to come across as an authoritarian.  We know better than to play Pilate and simply claim our authority as a trump card to win the day.  But in reality, every leadership position carries with it some measure of power and authority.  It must.

The issue is not whether we have authority, it is where we see the source of that authority and in how we use it.

Webster defines “authority” as “the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.”  Jesus tells Pilate in no uncertain terms that all authority is from above–meaning that it has its source in God himself.  In John chapter eight, even Jesus states that his own authority is derived from God, the Father, and that he does the things that are pleasing to him.  In this scenario, Pilate had no real self-derived authority to crucify Jesus.  The crucifixion of Jesus is part of salvation history.  Jesus was willingly submitting himself to the Father’s will to be crucified on the cross to fulfill God’s rescue plan for mankind.

Leaders, secular or spiritual, all stumble badly when they begin to believe that they are autonomous authoritarians who can do as they please.  Yet this is the mold for most leaders.  What will help to keep us grounded in our leadership positions is the realization that all authority is derived authority and we must steward it well towards serving others.  Authority has a source and it has an aim.  Its source is in God himself and its aim is to be used in building God’s kingdom.  A leader’s power to influence must be held very carefully and stewarded with great wisdom so that it might be effective in serving God’s will.

How do you view your own leadership authority?  How do others experience your leadership authority?  Do you see your ability to influence as that which is granted from above and meant to be stewarded well?

The Pope & Positional Leadership

Last week I had to travel to Rome to obtain a visa to India for an upcoming emerging leader training.  I traveled down a little early so I could climb the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral.  It truly is one of the best views of Rome.  When I arrived, I noticed a lot of people and a lot of security.  It was Holy Week at the Vatican-so I should not have been surprised.  I was quickly informed that the dome was closed until 1:00 p.m. because of a general audience with Pope Benedict.  I decided to stick around and take in the moment.  Everyone seem to have special tickets for this Easter week gathering.  I was hanging around the entrance, which was being monitored by the famous Swiss Guard-when one of them motioned me into the sectioned off seating area.  I looked around to be sure he was directing his attention to me-he was, and I went in.  I had an incredible seat. I was about 15 rows from the front. So I stayed to hear what the Pope would say.

As I waited for the Pope to address the crowd I began to wonder how this man still garnered so much devotion and attention.  Pilgrims from many parts of the world were on hand.  Thousands filled the square.  When the Pope finally made his appearance, the crowd erupted in wild cheers.  But why-really?  The last few years have not been the best for the Catholic Church in terms of public relations. With the sexual scandals dogging the priesthood and unpopular stances regarding abortion, marriage, and celibacy-and shrinking attendance at mass-you would think his appearance would hardly garner a small crowd.  If he were the president of some corporation with the current circumstances, he would have been soundly booed off the stage.  There would have been protests galore.  But as he made his appearance you would never know of the problems that surround the Catholic church.

Here are some thoughts on why people will still follow, even in light of glaring issues:

1. People will ascribe moral authority to the position or office even if some expressions of that authority have failed them.  People believe Pope Benedict is a good man. People believe that he is a man who desires to lead well and do right by the church and her parishioners.  People ascribe a certain amount of authority to the title, the position, or the person-and that can cover for a number of wrongs committed by his underlings.  In other words, most leaders have a certain amount of authority lent to them.  If the leader leads well and effects positive change, that lent authority can turn into granted authority-willingly and rightly extended and given to those who prove worthy.

2. People deeply want to believe in something.  People generally believe the best in their leaders.  We want to give people a second chance.  There is something within us that wants to believe in the ideal.  We want to hope-we want to trust.  So we will remain patient in the face of inconsistencies-to a point.  We will extend the second and third chance.  But patience will run out when the inconsistencies begin to exact a real toll.  When our patience begins to feel like foolishness we will withdraw our trust.  Trust must be validated by character and consistent actions-from the top of the structure to the bottom of the structure.

3. People want to be led and will willingly follow when authority is earned.  People will flock to a truly good leader.  When a leader’s character and consistent actions match a community’s real needs, authority will be granted and honored.  But that character must include dealing with obvious problems within the organization.  If problems are ignored, granted authority will be withdrawn.  The only hope at that point for the leader is to demand followership through threat or dominance.

I don’t think these principles are only for the church.  Any leader’s moral authority is really only as good as the effective change they create and the consistent leadership they provide.

There are three types of authority-demanded, lent and granted.  People will lend you a certain amount of authority as a leader-but if you don’t move rather quickly from lent authority to granted authority you will have to resort to demanded authority to maintain your influence.  And that is never where you want to be.  That is authority that is only derived from the power of the position.  Granted authority is what people willingly extend to consistent character and positive influence.  Even the Pope-or the institution, can over extend it’s moral authority. Leadership character includes really dealing with real problems.

Delegation vs Empowerment


tableatny on Flickr

To delegate means to choose or elect a person to act as a representative for another. To empower someone means to give power or authority to someone else. Do you hear the difference? To delegate something to someone is to only give them enough leash to act on your behalf, as you would for yourself. To empower another means you give them enough power and authority to act on their own behalf.

This is not good versus bad. There is a proper time for delegation. I can think of two: when someone is truly new to the ways of leadership and in times of crisis. When someone is cutting their teeth on leadership then you want to teach them how to handle responsibility. It is the principle of seeing if they will be faithful in little so that they might grow into being faithful with much. In times of crisis, there needs to be an authoritative decision maker and those who are willing to simply carry out those decisions to meet the critical need of the moment. But these two scenarios leave a lot of opportunity for empowerment.

In my mind there are three critical aspects to empowerment. To truly empower someone you must grant them authority, you must give them proper resources, and you must hold them accountable to organizational values and principles. They have to have enough authority to make some significant and important decisions. You have to give power away. They have to have resources that are truly theirs to steward. People, money, and tools. Yet it is not a free for all. There should be an accountable aspect that helps them stay within the playing field of organizational boundaries. You tell them the “what” but the “how” is left up to them. They have to have enough of all three things to truly have the freedom to fail on their own efforts–and learn.

While there is a proper time for both things I am pushing the action point towards empowerment. Here are some reasons why:

Delegation largely raises up followers-empowerment raises up leaders.

Delegation is less work for you in the short run-empowerment is more work for you in the short run.

Delegation is more work for you in the long run-empowerment is less work for you in the long run.

Delegation keeps you in the center of leadership activity-empowerment places someone else at the center of leadership activity.

Delegation ensures that you are your own leadership legacy, for good or for bad. Empowerment ensures that more leaders are your leadership legacy, which is almost always good.

Consider today some people around you that you can truly empower-not for your kingdom, but for His.