Power Versus Authority

There is a fine line of difference between power and authority, especially as bases for LeaderShip.

JamesHunter writes in TheServant (pp.29-34) that "If leadership is about influencing others, how do we go about developing that influence with people? How do we get people to do our will? How do we get their ideas, commitment, creativity, and excellence, which are by definition voluntary gifts? ... To better understand how one develops this type of influence, it is critical to understand the difference between power and authority. ...

Power: the ability of a person or a group to influence the beliefs and actions of other people. It is the ability to influence events. Power can be personal power. A person gets his personal power from his personality or from his expert knowledge. Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Programmers, etc. get their power from their expertise and professional knowledge. Power can also be legitimate or official power. This power comes from a higher authority.

Authority: the right given to a manager to achieve the objectives of the organisation. It is a right to get the things done through others. It is a right to take decisions. It is a right to give orders to the subordinates and to get obedience from them. A manager cannot do his work without authority.

... Authority cannot be bought or sold, given or taken away. Authority is about who you are as a person, your character, and the influence you've built with people [it is one's expression of one's self, which is treated thoroughly by WarrenBennis in OnBecomingaLeader]. ... power erodes relationships. You can get a few seasons out of power, even accomplish some things, but over time power can be very damaging to relationships. ... there are times when we must exercise power ... in firing a bad employee [for example - but] we had to resort to power because our authority had broken down [WattsHumphrey also acknowledges the risks of power]."

Needless to say, good LeaderShip leads by authority and not by power.

Authority comes from Author. If I'm the Author of a theory or book, then I'm the Authority on the subject.

Power is about being able to do damage. An administrator (of the RomanEmpire kind) must be able to give rewards and punishments.

See WhatIsLeadership.

The distinction between authority and power is not clear to me from the above, but if you you will distinguish between motivation by fear and other motivations, then I think it will become more clear. -- WaldenMathews

I've often heard power divided into three types: CoercivePower, also known as ThreatForce?, based on fear; ExchangePower?, based on barter, which is how economies work; and IntegrativePower?, which is based on respect and amplified by humility. IntegrativePower? is the basis of NonViolence as Gandhi taught it.

"Power" in this sense is defined as "the ability to influence others' actions." -- JasonFelice

Discussion on CoercivePower moved there.

That's one of the problems with quoting literature: sometimes you need more context. I think JamesHunter should've used "influence" instead of "authority". But DeMarco uses that word, too. He writes in PeopleWare (p.148) that "Between master craftsman and apprentice there is a bond of natural authority ... An insecure need for obedience is the opposite of natural authority. ... In the best organizations, there is natural authority working in all directions."

Let's say I'm your manager. I say, "Walden, I'm giving you distasteful task X, and your performance of it will be reviewed." I'm exercising my power and eroding our relationship. On the other hand, suppose I were to say "Walden, in the spirit of humble cooperation that we uphold here, I need you to help by taking on distasteful problem X. Will you help me?" Hopefully I'd have some influence with you because we share the value (a humble willingness to help), and based on the history of our relationship, you would trust me to recognize and reward your handling the problem and your fidelity to the shared value.

Anyway, Hunter goes on to argue why people are influenced by other people. Some of it simply has to do with caring for people (see WhatIsLeadership). If you think back about some of the best leaders you've had in your life, chances are you liked them in part because they simply made you feel good and valued and important and appreciated. They empowered you, they praised you, they recognized and rewarded you. In short, they cared about you. There are other factors as well, but those are the subject of other pages. -- RandyStafford

Randy, your explanation confirms my belief that the use of fear is the key discriminator between styles. Fear is on a continuum that leads to death, while empowerment fosters life and growth. Our response to these styles is a deep one.

Concur on all points. -- RPS

A bit more research might have led to the terms power and authority being coined in reverse roles from those above. The word power comes from a Latin root meaning to be able to do things, while the word authority comes from a root meaning creator. Authority implies that one has total control over that which he creates (including perhaps you), while ability to do things is an attribute in someone I might like to follow.

I see that you're the "authority" on SoftwareEtymology ;-) I agree it is unfortunate when people do not pay closer attention to the meanings of the words they use. For my part, I was merely quoting literature. For better or worse, at least there is consistency between TomDeMarco, WattsHumphrey, and JamesHunter (and perhaps other authors of leadership literature) in the usage of these terms. -- RPS

I'm in agreement that the literature seems to be using 'power' and 'authority' in a manner backwards from common usage. Authority implies hierarchy implies structure, while power implies ability implies freedom. It's not unlike the distinction between authority and responsibility, most often seen in toxic organizations as being made responsible for the success or failure of a project without being given authority to gather resources to move that project. -- Pete Hardie

Are you familiar with Jerry Weinberg's stuff on leadership? Jerry runs a workshop called Problem Solving Leadership (PSL). If you don't know it, you might want to check it out. [1]

No, I wasn't familiar with it, though I've read his ThePsychologyOfComputerProgramming. Thanks for the pointer. -- RPS

-- WaldenMathews

This is a very interesting page. I wonder how much different the world would be if no-one had Power. Just authority. How great would it be if we All had the same authority. But then that would just make us equal again. In that case; Imagine that Power had not been invented, only Authority. That would be cool. -- MatthewTheobalds

Authority invents Power, as an energy conserving tactic, in order to grow more authority. So you will never be with one and without the other for very long. Might as well get used to there being Power. -- WaldenMathews

See also UninterruptiblePowerSupply.

In response to Matthew: The idea that everyone should have the same authority strikes me as Marxist. Authority (as defined on this page) is the ability to influence people by frequently being right, insightful, helpful, and otherwise consistently producing output deemed valuable. (I've had authority with people I've never met before simply because they've read (and liked!) my writings. Think of authors you like: They have tremendous authority with/over you even though they have no power over you (unless they're your boss!).) Authority is something that's earned; some people will end up with more than others. It's also not absolute: A person has more authority in areas he's good at than those he's not; A person has more authority in some peers' eyes than others because they like his ideas better. Maybe we all start with the same amount of authority (virtually none), but then we earn it or lose it through our actions and efforts and how those are viewed by others.

It occurs to me that a lawyer's authority changes dramatically the moment a client gets arrested or sued. Especially a lawyer with a reputation for being able to get guilty people off the hook. Likewise, a consultant has a lot more authority with a project that's in trouble. -- BobbyWoolf, 08/26/00

In response to Walden: You assert that power and authority go together, so you will never be with one and without the other for very long. That may be ideal, but it's not reality. If this were true, there'd be no management problems. If your boss orders you to perform distasteful task X, he's exercising his power while undermining his authority. But as long as he continues to be your boss, and you continue to want to get paid, he has power over you, even long after he's lost all authority with you. -- BobbyWoolf, 08/26/00

Yikes, Bobby, you're cutting in on my authority! What shall I do to keep you at bay?

You're right. I fell into the trap of one-sided thinking. What I meant to say above is that when you have genuine authority, power is sure to follow. What that really means is that when others recognize and begin to trust your consistently useful outputs, they begin to dispense with expensive rationales and proofs: the tests fall away (HaloEffect). Now they're doing what you want just because you want it. [That's the point at which power begins to corrupt, and it never fails. It's just a question of how fast and how far.]

However, the reverse is not true. Just because you wield the power of fear over others, that doesn't mean you will become trusted or respected, or that your outputs will ever become valuable. -- WaldenMathews

I like that I mentioned peers. Power is the control you have over subordinates. Authority is the influence you have over peers. How effective would your boss be if he were your peer?

It occurs to me that I'd like a manager who behaves more like a peer and less like a boss. That's exercising authority, not power. -- BobbyWoolf, 08/26/00

I don't think the difference between power and influence is quite as clear cut as it has been presented above. Power is the degree to which people will accept your decisions without question. Influence is the ability to convince people of the validity of a decision. Using power when influence is needed is usually bad in the long run. Using influence builds power which can then be used very sparingly when absolutely needed. -- WayneMack

Wayne, thanks for making the powerfully clear distinction above. Our understanding of power and authority (or whatever terms you feel comfortable designating for these) can be simplified if we acknowledge that influence - getting people to do (or not to do) - is at the core. When others follow you because you are usually effective in a given domain, and they follow with minimal questioning, then you have power, but it's not corrupt. This power goes hand-in-hand with genuine authority, and represents an optimized state for a well-functioning team. When you influence people using leverage outside the knowledge sphere in which the team is working, you are using pure power, as when you say "please do it this way, or I shall have to dismiss you". In this case, the knowledge used to influence is knowledge of organizational policy ("If I dismiss this person, the company will back up my decision."). Either kind of power can become corrupt, but it seems to me that the one that flows continuously from real authority (ability) is less likely to, because in reality there is always a test cycle present in these relationships, always the thought "He's been right in the past, but this seems different."

So, the concept can be refactored into simple elements: visible capability, trust, influence leveraged through each of these, and corruption of influence leveraged (mainly) through trust. I think you can build up the rest of this entire discussion from those five elements. -- WaldenMathews

Well put, Walden. "Power" (as used above in negative connotation) is really "threat". I think we all agree that "influence" is key; it's best to lead from a position of influence than from a position of threat. I think Wayne is in perfect conceptual agreement with JamesHunter, we just can't find baggage-free words. As I said above, I think its unfortunate that Hunter used "authority" instead of "influence", because "authority" gets conflated with "power" (of the threat variety) because people have that "authority commensurate with responsibility" cliche stuck in their minds. Now I'm thinking Hunter also should have used "threat" instead of "power", because true influence gives you power of a good kind (but I still prefer to think of it as influence because to me "power" has negative connotations of power-mongering). So maybe this page should really be named ThreatVersusInfluence?. As far as LeaderShip goes, the point is that effective leaders lead with influence, not threat, even if they have institutionally-given power/authority. -- RandyStafford

TheServant lists ten QualitiesOfInfluentialPeople. -- BobbyWoolf, 08/30/00

The phrase "do not confuse fear with respect" is perhaps a succinct summary of the issues discussed here. -- TomPayne?, 09/04/02

I think someone should mention Etzoni here: he says there are three sorts of power relationship: coercive (which is what this page mostly discusses), reward, and normative/ideological. See http://www.bola.biz/motivation/etzioni.html


An authority can be associated with the limits an organization places on a particular position or office. For example, the office held by a managing director can be seen as an authority instituted by that organization. Power is the innate ability of the personality that holds the office described by the organization. Authority is statutory and is explicitly outlined. Take for example manager A and manager B. Both occupy the same office in an organization. The authority of manager A is similar to that of manager B as far as the company is concerned. However manager A might posses abilities that manager B lacks. In discharging his duty, manager A could use this edge to outperform manager B. In summary power is personal whereas authority is fixed and define

My views are different: you can operate power without authority but the reverse is not the case. what gives life to power is authority. In the absence of authority, any power in use is coercive.
 for instance, an armed robber with gun, holding hostages, has power but no authority as compared to a policeman. who wields power through his authority!-CHINEDU OCHEI

This page is not clear. There are several types of power: LEGAL, EXPERT, REWARD, PUNISHMENT, REFERENT, INFORMATIONAL , CHARISMA.

To keep this simple, in legal power set up situations as in the business world, a manager is granted authority, that is as Hamilton said "it is given".

Authority is the right to do any act, of course within the domain or scope of the association or the discretionary position.

However it can easily be taken away as in a takeover, bankruptcy, or a new board of directors etc. John Crawford ____________

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