Closing the Gap between Authority and Power

Last week, I published a post that highlighted the fine distinction between caring and care-taking.  While on the topic of making distinctions, this post, from 2012 explores the difference 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, Organizational Effectiveness, Servant Leadership

12 responses to “Closing the Gap between Authority and Power

  1. Fascinating post Gwyn – my earlier career was a teacher/principal. I was always amazed & amused when the kindergarten teacher would call me in to deal with a behavior issue. She had the authority, but the 5 yr. old had the power.
    We often neutralize our effectiveness by abdicating our authority.

    Best regards,

  2. Really enjoyed your article.
    The premise about good work is right on.
    I also espouse to gain Authority one must Master the Servant Mentality. The true successes in business I have met, over the past 70 years, all possessed that unique attribute.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Chuck ~ I agree! Sometimes serving is very powerful. It’s finding the balance that’s tricky and those who seem to know when to do what are very special.

  3. Very insightful post Gwyn. I’ve been a location manager in a chain optical business for a dozen years. When I was ready to step up to a position of more authority, our parent company merged it’s optical and pharmacy businesses into a single management chain and effectively closed my door to advancement. When this happened, I was already the optical manager that my peers in other stores throughout the state called when they needed advice. I’ve since put forth the effort to learn the business aspects of the pharmacy and have started expanding my influence with the location managers on that side of the business. Recently I’ve been a bit disappointed that the work wasn’t going to allow the chance for more authority but your article has let me realize that the power (influence) I have is just a fullfilling and probably more important than the positional authority.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Randy ~ Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience here. It sounds like, rather than losing ground, you have gained something more important. Bravo 🙂

  4. Very thought-provoking post, Gwyn! I especially liked the George Carlin quote. I’ve coached many new managers who felt the need to act authoritative once they had authority so thanks for that distinction.

  5. TT

    Hi Gwyn
    I’m glad I checked back in again. As usual, your post and readers’ comments seem to be just the words and thoughts I need to read and hear!
    I have been in a position similar to Randy’s for the last few years with some disappointments and decreased opportunities, it seemed. However, now I realize that those times of decreased authority can actually be the times for self-growth. Since you don’t have to worry about anybody else, you can just focus on yourself! Then when the next opportunity presents itself, usually at unexpected times and in unusual ways, you’ll be ready. It sounds like Randy is doing that by increasing his knowledge and skill set while maintaining his contacts and expanding his network. The important thing is to keep, or expand, your credibility. Once you lose your credibility and become exposed, you can lose it all, just like the Wizard of Oz. If you stay in the trenches, increasing your knowledge and skills, when someone else falters, you’ll be ready to skip down the yellow brick road! : )

  6. Pingback: Pay no attention | Management Views

  7. Pingback: As much authority as the Pope | Management Briefs

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