How using different types of authority affects leadership

October 15, 2021 - 22 min read

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What is authority?

3 sociological types of authority

8 types of authority in everyday life

Leadership and authority

Know your types of authority for great leadership

Organizations are networks of power, influence, and authority. For the leader at the top, these dimensions are usually pretty clear. For everyone else, less so.

Those with less direct authority have to use what power, influence, and other types of authority they have to make things happen. Basically, if people won't just do what you tell them to based on the title you hold or your position (or fear), you have to develop other types of authority. That's not a bad thing.

Authority is an important piece of the puzzle. 

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to be aware of the control you hold over other people. And most importantly, how to use this control to guide your team to success.

A good leader understands the different types of power and when it’s appropriate to use them. They also understand how to use influencing tactics to achieve outcomes.

But what is authority, really?

How is it different from power and influence?

And how does authority relate to leadership and leadership values?

Let’s explore this important aspect of leadership and how different types of authority come into play in everyday life.

What is authority?

Authority is the right to assign tasks and responsibilities, allocate and direct resources, make decisions, and enforce compliance.

Authority can be formal and assigned or informal, earned. 

Authority also refers to legitimate power to make decisions on behalf of the organization. A person with legitimate authority can act as they see fit to achieve company goals and objectives. It gives a person the right to use and allocate resources in service of team or organizational outcomes. The assumption is that a person with legitimate authority will act in the best interests of the organization.

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Essentially, this type of authority is the right to give a command. This means that leaders and top-level management always have the greatest authority. It is authority that directs interactions from a superior to a subordinate. This forms a foundation of accountability.

Authority gives a manager the power to instruct and command others. They decide to act (or refrain from acting) in order to achieve key goals set out by their organization.

This authority doesn't guarantee that commands or instructions will be executed. 

Although power and authority are closely linked, they are different. Power is the ability to influence others and control their actions. Authority is the legal and formal right to give orders and make decisions.

3 sociological types of authority

Sociologist Max Weber developed a classification system for the concept of authority in his essay “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule.”

Let's take a look at Weber's three types of authority.

1. Charismatic authority

Charismatic authority comes from the personal charisma, strength, and charm of an individual’s personality.

Weber noted that people do not follow charismatic leadership based on virtue, tradition, or statute. People follow this authority because they believe in the leader.

Examples of leaders with charismatic authority include:

  • Nelson Mandela 
  • Aung San Suu Kyi
  • Martin Luther King Jr.

With this type of authority, the true knowledge and capabilities of a charismatic leader aren’t necessarily relevant. As long as the people they are leading believe that they are competent, their authority is respected.

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According to Weber, it’s especially difficult for charismatic leaders to keep their authority. This is because their followers must always legitimize their authority for the leader to maintain their power.

Charismatic authority differs from traditional and legal-rational authority. It does not develop from established traditions and regulations.

Rather, it develops from the belief a leader’s followers have in them. Once a leader loses this, systems transform into legal-rational or traditional authority systems.

2. Traditional authority

The legitimacy of traditional authority comes from traditions and customs. Weber describes this system as the “authority of the eternal yesterday.”

A good example of a traditional authority system would be a monarchy. Most governments throughout history have led according to this form of authority.

In this form of domination, subordinates accept the type of authority. They refrain from challenging the traditional rights of a powerful group or individual.

Weber believed that traditional authority creates and preserves inequalities. If this authority is not challenged, the leader will stay in power indefinitely.

3. Rational-legal authority

Rational-legal authority is also known as bureaucratic authority or legal authority. With this type of authority, an individual or ruling group exerts power based on legal office.

Once the person in power leaves their official position, their authority is lost. Those who govern have a legal right to do so, and subordinates accept this legal authority.

Weber noted that “rationally created rules” form the foundation of this type of authority. A good example of this is modern democracies and democratic leadership.

In the past, legal authority systems have often developed in opposition to traditional authority.

It’s important to note that rational-legal authority can be challenged by its subordinates. But this challenge is not likely to result in rapid structural changes.

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8 types of authority in everyday life

Authority is an integral part of the society in which we live. It ensures that rules are adhered to. Authority also prevents the breakdown of social order.

A world without rules, laws, and authority figures may seem utopian to some. But the absence of law and order can lead to widespread disruption and chaos. This destabilizes valued concepts like:

  • Security
  • Freedom
  • Peace

In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram performed a range of obedience experiments. These experiments found that people were generally willing to go to great lengths to obey figures of authority. Milgram’s experiments also found that the presence of an authority figure improved compliance.

These are the key types of authority and authority examples in modern society.

1. Founder authority

Founder authority is usually held by the founding member of a group or organization. It is based on their experience managing people and organizations.

Founders often have well-defined roles and responsibilities. They have a vested interest in their particular area of specialization. This makes them more involved in their group’s operations than anyone else.

Founder authority is based on:

  • Knowledge
  • Previous experience
  • A will to see an organization succeed

Founders have authority over employees and even senior leaders of an organization.

2. Ownership authority

This type of authority belongs to individuals who own a company or organization. This ownership gives them the right to make decisions on behalf of the entire organization. Great examples are sole proprietors and sports team owners.

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As well as authority, these leaders carry a lot of responsibility. Their decisions affect everyone in their organization.

It's important to note that leaders with this type of power need good decision-making skills. They have only their ownership authority to rely on and may lack the right skills to serve their organization’s best interests.

3. Punitive authority

Punitive authority gives an individual the ability to punish others if they have broken rules. This authority is often bestowed upon individuals based on legal and regulatory criteria. It can be taken away once they have left their positions of power.

Examples include judges of court and umpires in sports games. Both of whom can use rules and laws to control the outcomes of sessions under their jurisdiction.

4. Relational authority

In some groups, any action taken by a member could affect the entire group. Because of this, the members of the group have relational authority.

Examples of relational authority would be members of sports teams or large corporations. These members could negatively impact their groups if they do not achieve their targets.

In any business, employees, managers, and supervisors all have relational authority. Each person is connected in some way to all other employees.

5. Reward authority

People with reward authority have the power to reward others for positive actions and behaviors. They may also hold punitive authority. This enables them to withhold rewards based on negative behaviors.

These rewards can be tangible, such as pay and compensation increases or positive performance reviews. Or they can be intangible, such as praise and recognition. College professors, HR professionals, and teachers are examples of this type of authority.

6. Results authority

Results authority is based on the ability to achieve certain targets and objectives. It is created when people consistently achieve positive results using their unique skill sets.

If you have produced results in the past, you will likely do so again. This is why people consider you an authority figure.

For example, you may have been made project manager and produced excellent results. Because of your previous success, you are put in charge of other projects so that they can also be successful. In this instance, you have results authority.

Professional sports team coaches and corporate training professionals are other good examples of results authority. These types of leaders have proven time and time again that they can achieve desired results. They have earned this authority through their:

7. Expert authority

People that are experts and specialists in particular subjects have expert authority. These types of leaders usually only specialize in one or two areas. But this is why their opinions and viewpoints are so valued by their peers.

A good example in a corporate environment would be a business or economic analyst with many years of experience.

Expert authority is not to be confused with expert power. Expert power is based on the perception of having higha high level of knowledge or specialized skills.

8. Reverent authority

People with reverent authority have won their peers over with their approach to people. It is based on their respect, compassion, and empathy for others.

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Those with this kind of authority don’t necessarily need to be experts on any given subject. Rather, they have magnetic personalities. Their care and regard for everything they do lead people to view them as authoritative figures.

Professional therapists and counselors are examples of reverent authorities.

Reverent authority is not to be confused with referent power. A leader who has strong interpersonal relationship skills will gain this type of power.

Leadership and authority

Leadership and authority are interrelated in a number of ways. However, it takes more than just authority to make an effective leader.

Authority is a form of legitimate power that comes with a certain position. It is based on control and credibility. Being in a position of authority does not automatically inspire your team or give you devotion.

On the other hand, leadership is based on the personal qualities and character of an individual. It is about social skills, not power and control. There is a foundation of agreement and trust between leaders and their teams.

An important aspect of leadership is the delegation of authority. Through delegation, leaders empower their teams to do the work they are best suited to. As well as dividing up work, delegation is about sharing responsibility and decision-making.

Strong team leadership creates followers out of free choice without forcing them to adhere to certain standards. Effective leaders always provide their followers with a platform to voice their thoughts and give feedback.

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Exercising authority can have the unintended effect of limiting a team’s approach to problem-solving. Leadership fixes this by encouraging people to be creative and look beyond the obvious. They must think creatively to develop innovative solutions that work for everyone involved.

When dealing with adults in a working environment, using authority alone to direct and control them does not work well. Leadership provides a more effective approach of:

This creates strong relationships built on foundations of trust and respect.

Leaders may rely on formal authorities for guidance. But it takes more than just authority to make a leader. People in leadership positions are trusted and admired not only for their authority but also for their expertise, integrity, and judgment.

Authentic leadership can inspire followers to change through self-management methods. This is why leadership is effective at promoting positive attitudes and behaviors. It’s a tool for encouraging a healthy company culture.

Know your types of authority for great leadership

Authority is present in every aspect of modern society. From corporate environments to government, different types of authority keep everyone in check.

Although authority is a crucial part of the workplace, effective leaders know when to use which type of authority in which situation. They use it in moderation, together with the right management style.

Great leaders do not rely solely on one type of authority. They cultivate durable forms of authority across the people that matter to their success. That's why you will see people willing to follow a leader even when that person loses their job or is demoted.

Active leadership is a way of cultivating durable authority. Good leaders take the initiative to lead people and help their teams succeed.

The people who actively lead their people will be those who are followed, remembered, and respected for years to come.

BetterUp coaching can help leaders across your organization understand and develop their own types of authority. Contact BetterUp for a demo.

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Published October 15, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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