Closing the Gap between Authority and Power

George Carlin once said, “I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don’t have as many people who believe it”

This started me thinking about what authority and power in organizations really mean. Some people believe these words are synonymous. Well, perhaps, but I’m more inclined to believe that authority and power, while linked, are two different things.

For instance, it is possible for you to have authority without power if you are a newly appointed manager. People reporting to you will likely have little or no experience with you as a leader. As such, they may be reticent to follow your directives. Your authority only carries real power when you have earned their trust and respect and when they can see merit in the direction you want to take them.   In short, the power kicks in when they give it to you.

Conversely, it is possible to have power without authority when as a well informed, competent and reliable team member, people seek out your advice and guidance.  While you may not have the authority to make certain decisions on your own, you influence other team members who have come to respect your judgment and are eager to follow your lead.

Of course, as George Carlin so succinctly reminds us, the challenge is to optimize on the authority we are given by persuading others to not only believe it but also endorse and respect it.  When we have accomplished that, then  words like authority and power become more easily interchangeable.

So how does one go about closing the gap between authority and power?  Well, here are some thoughts about that:

Be yourself

Some people believe that when they are awarded the mantle of authority, they must behave in a certain authoritative way.  However, to me, authority has no particular personality trait.  It is simply a mechanism provided to some people that facilitates decision-making and getting things done.  When you represent yourself honestly, people are more likely to accept and trust you and that’s where the power lies.

Listen and learn

The decisions you make are only as good as the information on which you base them.  Effective decision-making happens when the leader, and those who follow him or her, learn from each other.  Your authority gives you permission to make decisions.  The power behind the authority lies in the willingness of the leader to listen, learn and make informed ones.

Roll up your sleeves and join in

There are times when the leader becomes the ‘servant’.  This is when everyone is clear about what must be accomplished and you, as leader, do whatever you can to support the process.  You may certainly have the authority to command work to be done without participating yourself.  However, sometimes rolling up the sleeves to help is just what is needed to inject enthusiasm into the mix and create positive working relationships. And that can be pretty powerful.

Recognize and Reward good work

If you want to put power behind your authority, good work must never go unrecognized.   As humans, we all need to know that we, and our efforts, are appreciated. And, in the workplace, recognition is very much valued when it comes from a person in authority and is offered with sincerity.  Most of us, when given such recognition, are eager to do more and to do it happily. And that’s where the power comes from.

There are, of course, other ways to close the gap between authority and power and I invite you to share your ideas here too.

In the meantime, I leave you with another thought.  Some people in authority believe they can grab power by using fear as their primary motivator.  It’s a poor and often painful strategy that may work for a while but does not usually stand the test of time.  Even the Wizard of Oz was found out eventually.

So, What do you think?


Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, Management, motivating & Inspiring, Servant Leadership

10 responses to “Closing the Gap between Authority and Power

  1. Hi. First, let me salute your astute observations and how succinctly you put them. Easy enough to read and understand.
    Now as for my comments, they are based on my experience and observations (duh) from my time in Nigeria, both as a citizen as well as a human being:
    I am convinced that leaders are made, not born. It all depends on how the individual seeks and accepts validation (from others and his/herself).
    I also solidly believe that a people get the leaders that they deserve, for afterall, it is the people who ‘give’ power.
    I’ve seen the rotten side of all the points you’ve made (but who hasn’t?), and I’ve seen the wonderful side as well, and I have to say that it is a thin line that divides them. This line shifts quite frequently, and the only way a leader can lead with both authourity and power is to listen and act appropriately. The Margaret Thatcher quote is quite valid as well.
    The appearance of power and the actual possession of it depends on something I believe you left out (intentionally or unintentionally), and I believe it is the influence of those above you, the individuals you answer to. Everyone answers to someone. No exceptions. Perhaps in certain cases, they answer to ‘some thing’ (shareholders, bankruptcy, speculations, the people)…I believe it is how you regard them that determines if you’re going to make it as a leader or not. Regard them with fear, and you’ve lost. Regard them with impunity, and they will bring you back in live via reality check (eg Halliburton).
    This factor is not to be disregarded, no matter the circumstances because I believe what history has shown time and again…perceived truth and actual fact are not the same thing.

    Thanks for the chance to read and comment.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Remi ~ there are two things that stand out for me in your comment. The first is that we should always be aware of the thin, and always moving, line between authority and power. Finding that balance is one of leadership’s biggest challenges and that’s where listening and seeking to understand offer much needed stability.
      The second is the importance of the relationships we form with those to whom we report. As you say, we all report to someone or an entity of some kind. If we are governed by fear, then I suspect that is how we in turn will govern. And, to me, that speaks to the impact organizational culture has on how we choose to view and use both authority and power.
      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughtful view here.

  2. Very powerful piece that reminded me of the power& control/responsibility and knowledge paradigms. Thanks for your great insights! Sadly they are too often not seen thru by the many.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jan ~ Yes, whoever said, “With great power comes great responsibility” was right on. Thanks for that and for coming by!

  3. Gwyn,
    Great post. I agree 100% with your premise about the difference between power and authority.

    Any suggestions for a recently appointed manager about how to persuade her “boss” to “empower” her to act. Appointment without empowerment is a very difficult challenge to overcome.

    Looking forward to your reply.
    Be well, Gwyn.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Larry ~ I agree, appointment without empowerment seems a bit pointless too. As you know though, it happens. There are many reasons for it but I think the answer lies somewhere in the “building relationship” department which usually begins with a candid conversation.
      Thanks for coming by! It’s always a pleasure to see you here.

  4. Brilliant post! As a former school principal, I learned this lesson well. When the informal teacher leader retired, her power shifted to a less honorable teacher who used it in divisive, rather than cooperative, ways. My role became significantly more challenging as a result. I learned that my authority and power were nothing without the cooperation of the team!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jamie ~ Power and authority are nothing without the cooperation of the team. Well said. Thank you for sharing a really good example of how something good can turn bad when placed in the wrong hands.

  5. gregblencoe


    I love the George Carlin quote. I’ve never seen that before. Very funny! And that’s one of the great scenes from the Wizard of Oz.

    I completely agree with the other comments. There are so many great insights in this post.

    I think the distinction between authority and power is a very important one. And I’ve seen many lower-level employees who have a lot of power, because they are so good at what they do.

    I agree that listening to employees and employee recognition are very important. I think leaders that are humble and wise listen to their employees. This makes sense because employees know more about their jobs than anybody else, so they are likely to provide some really good insights.

    Regarding rolling up your sleeves and joining in, twenty years ago when I worked at Little Caesars Pizza in high school I had a manager (who is still a close friend) that was really good about this. I often had to wash dishes when I was the employee who stayed until the store closed at 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. And when it got really busy, I had lots and lots of dishes to wash. When this happened, he would often help me wash dishes around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. when there were fewer customers coming to the store. This meant so much to me and made me respect him so much. As you can imagine, he had both authority and power.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Greg ~ That’s a great story. It illustrates so well that while helping can be as simple as pitching in to wash dishes, it’s impact is carried for a long long time. Thank you for that and for adding value to this post.

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