Why Authority Matters, Today More Than Ever

Why Authority Matters, Today More Than Ever

Why Authority Matters, Today More Than Ever 760 519 Randolf Jessl

The world is changing fast. Digitization, economic disruptions and social media are transforming our societies and economies fundamentally. In such an environment, those who want to get things done and get people behind their efforts must be able to lead and persuade. That is true both for individuals and for organizations. Authority and authorities are needed, and their emergence can and must be facilitated.

By Randolf Jessl and Andreas Scheuermann

The kind of economic and social adjustments that the above-mentioned challenges require do not come automatically. They need to be initiated, implemented and won.

Leaders who can give orientation and who at the same time assume responsibility for their actions need to step forward. In theory, decision-makers of a certain rank in the political and economic spheres ought to fulfill that role. At least they have the power. But do they also have the authority? And if they don’t, who has it instead?

Authority, Not Power!

One thing is certain: We need authority, more than ever. What we do not need is false, misapprehended authority, one that is based on privilege, on the abuse of power or an authoritarian notion.

„Wherever there is a man who exercises authority, there is a man who resists authority.” – Oscar Wilde

Those who merely hand out orders or who act as control freaks are not authorities in our sense. People are inclined to oppose them, or at least they will not follow them any longer. The exercise of ‘hard power’ will ultimately provoke resistance and not a following. As Oscar Wilde put it: “Wherever there is a man who exercises authority, there is a man who resists authority.”

Hence the need for true authority, of the kind that Cyril N. Parkinson once described as follows: „Effective authority is not based on privilege, but on more knowledge, effort and energy”.

Role models who lead through knowledge, good ideas and creative power can inspire others. However, those ‘true authorities’ and their ideas must first be allowed to find an audience and a following.

Nowadays, the means to do that exist. Publishing, giving speeches or being active in networks is no longer the privilege of a few people of a certain social rank or status.

At the same time, it is increasingly difficult to make your voice heard in today’s over-excited media environment, or in rigid and inflexible company structures, all of which make it difficult for ‘knowledge, effort and energy’ to permeate and succeed.

„Effective authority is not based on privilege, but on more knowledge, effort and energy”. – Cyril Northcote Parkinson

This is about more than what the disciples of self-marketing and ‘reputation management’ preach. It is about winning a following, both within companies and among the wider public.

The term ‘following’ may sound obsolete, but is it not strangely familiar when we look at the world of social media? Well, not exactly. If a following is to be something real, it is insufficient to generate a group of  ‘followers’ who give us a ‘like’.

Instead, this is about persuading people to do more than just click a ‘like button’, to really get them to act and engage.

It is about winning talents and top performers to recognize and follow authorities, through thick and thin, based on the person’s knowledge, ideas and exemplary character.

Where Does Authority Originate?

In the past, it was often believed that authority is a person’s character trait or talent. However, it has proved practically impossible to back up such claims or to discover the ‘authority gene’ in individuals.

Others attribute authority to a person’s position, rank or status. However, this kind of authority is most of the time nothing but another word for exercising power through bureaucracy. The Romans already distinguished between ‘potestas’ and ‘auctoritas’. The latter can best be described as dignity, esteem and influence; it is synonymous to ‘reputatio’ (reputation).

You don’t have authority, you acquire it.

We are convinced: You don’t just have authority, you acquire it. And you do so by thoughts, words and actions. Authority is a social function and is attributed by others who recognize and follow it. Authority requires trust. That is why we want to help true authorities to realize their potential and win other people’s trust wherever possible.

What impact has authority?

Three spheres can be distinguished.

Firstly, authority is first and foremost tied to a person. Its impact is on individuals. It is a person’s idea that inspires. It is his or her messages that resonate and that generate trust. Once this spreads a reputation and social proof is being built and authority becomes a public matter from which it draws legitimacy and strength.

Superior knowledge, the creativity and the drive of an individual can then move entire organizations, debates and projects, by far more effectively than any appeal issued, or idea disseminated, by an official institution could ever accomplish.

Secondly, authority works well for organizations, provided they are open for it. That requires an organizational culture that values those who come to the fore and share their knowledge and ideas.  This is an organization that attributes authority not based on rank or status but based on one’s ideas, drive and expertise.

In such an environment, those who know more and those who have the best ideas are empowered to lead, to be heard and to gather a following.

Sadly, very few companies promote authority. Consequently, they fail to bring to the fore the people who have the best ideas and the ability to drive change and innovation.

Thirdly, authority has an impact on markets. Merely praising the virtues of a product or a specific company brand will not leave a lasting impressing. Only human beings are capable of making credible pitches. Human expertise is the basis and starting point of any interaction that leads to marketing access.

In the marketplace, it is therefore critical to effectively communicate the originality, substance, mission and creativity of the authorities that are behind successful products or services. Only then can much-touted tools such as ‘reputation management’ or ‘thought leadership’ be useful and effective.

Pioneers in the United States have coined the term ‘authority marketing’ for this.

How to Promote Authority?

We are deeply convinced that real and effective authority is required to allow the right people as well as valuable new ideas to come to the fore and to be successful, be it within an organization, or in the marketplace.

We invite you to discuss with us how to achieve this through concrete projects and actions. Authority matters – in turbulent times like these more than ever.

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Photo Credit: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare (photo file A)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-03d7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99