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

Eradicating The Blame Game

small__405633410It is not uncommon to see medium to large organizations get caught in the blame game. This is where different teams or departments blame their lack of effectiveness on another team or department. It is not unusual to see individuals on a team blame each other for a lack of results. It sounds like this, “If only the other guy would get his act together, than I could succeed in what I am being asked to do.” Or it may sound like this, “If only that other department truly knew and understood what we do, then they would be much more agreeable to working together and helping meet our needs.” I see this at times in my own organization.

The end result of the blame game is a lack of trust. People value their own work, and may even generally like their co workers in another department, but they don’t trust them to do the right thing or add value. This creates silos and getting work done via crony relationships. But 21st century leadership requires cooperation and collaboration. We need to be about creating healthy cultures of personal responsibility and interdependency. Ultimately, the blame game serves to erode the leadership and work culture of any organization.

I think there are three major considerations to eradicating the blame game.

1. Directional Clarity.

Has top level leadership provided overall directional clarity?

Do all teams and departments understand the top three directional priorities?

What can you personally do to lead up or down to bring this kind of clarity to every team and department?

If there is a lack of directional clarity then there is nothing to rally around. Teams and departments will automatically compete for resources through the “loudest voice” approach.

I categorically believe that the number one daily function of every leader is to make sure that organizational “magnetic north” is always clear.

Is every person able to communicate the top organizational priorities and are the able to see where their unique contribution fits in the accomplishment of those priorities?

2. Clean Lines of Authority.

Who are the ultimate decision makers for every team and department?

Who are the overall organizational decision makers?

Authority is about how who holds the power to make decisions.

When lines of authority are confusing, barriers are immediately erected to cooperation and collaboration.

Do the right people report to the right people?

Are teams and departments aligned correctly for the effective and efficient functioning of the organization?

Have the right people been empowered to act? 

3. Shared Goals.

This is closely akin to the first consideration.

Are organizational goals dictated or are the appropriate teams and departments allowed to speak into those goals?

Without shared goals there really is no compelling reason to cooperate and collaborate.

Aiming for shared goals forces better communication and understanding.

It cultivates ownership, and therefore perpetuates best efforts, best practices, and shared learning. This can even lead to a great sense of shared leadership. 

Shared goals can foster a healthy sense of dependency on other teams and departments to get the job done. 

To “blame” means to “find fault with, to hold another responsible for the bad that happens.”

Leaders are truly the ones who are responsible when blaming becomes epidemic. Is a culture of blame growing up around you? Maybe it is time to run a diagnostic to better determine the clarity of your direction, the cleanness of your lines of authority, and the degree to which you are promoting shared goals. You could begin with some of the questions above.

What else would you add to this analysis?

(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?