Leadership vs. Authority


To lead is to show the way. It is to guide the actions or opinions of others, and to direct in a given course. (Websters New Riverside University Dictionary, 1984)

A leader is an individual who guides or leads. The person in charge or command of others, the head of a political organization or social group, and an individual who has power and influence are all potential leaders with assigned or earned authority.

Leadership is the skill of leading. Actual leadership requires the ability to motivate and inspire others. It is not dependent upon a tangible source of power, and is so much more difficult to define than this.

It’s different from its synonyms.

Many organizations and people confuse those who they put into positions of power or authority with their leaders. Leaders shape our social structures, organizations, communities, and our nation. We tend to look to our leaders for guidance, and influence.


The one concept we most often confuse with Leadership is Authority. In talking about Authority, there are different types:
• Traditional
• Rational-Legal
• Charismatic

Traditional authority is dependent upon established tradition or order. We follow and adhere to traditional authority because it’s passed down through the generations. In cases of traditional authority, we yield to it because it’s the way we’ve “always done” something. Adults and children who question this type of authority, and Rational-Legal authority, are often accused of displaying something like Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). This is because the act of questioning authority is often seen as an aberrant behavior. But, generally, if we do question authority for some reason, it’s Traditional and Rational-Legal more so than Charismatic.

The source of power in a charismatic ruler is the trust and faith followers will give to the authority. The trust and faith are worship based, and we follow charismatic rulers because we want to appease them. Keep in mind, that there are examples of Charismatic Leaders who’ve used their position and authority to do some awful things: Jim Jones, and Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, we are much less likely to question a charismatic authority figure who we love, and who we’ve chosen to follow, than a traditional authority figure who was thrust upon us based on tradition or rationality.

Then we have Rational-Legal authority figures who derive their power based upon our vote. We elect these figures. Their elections anchor their legitimacy because we’ve put them in positions of power. Rational-Legal authority figures must possess some amount of charisma to begin with, or we wouldn’t be willing to follow their lead and interpretations of how we should behave within society.

Rulers and Leaders

A good leader is generally an individual who has been entrusted by their people to lead them for some purpose. In rational society we have a well-established practice of electing our Rational-Legal authority figures. Generally, we willingly hoist these individuals up into positions of power because they are charismatic, and we put our faith and trust in them. When a ruler seizes power in society, our lives, or in our professional environment, we often question their legitimacy until they prove their worthiness.

Authority is simply the right to command, enforce laws, or exact obedience. There are plenty of men and women who are now and have been in positions of power and authority.

• Your boss
• Kim Jong Un
• Joseph Stalin
• Your parents
• Your kids’ soccer coach
• A high school principal
• The librarian

Also, there are individuals who have been and currently are Leaders who hold no rational-legal, or traditional authority. They’re leaders because they’ve proven their willingness to sacrifice for their cause, to give of themselves for our benefit, and lead the way to help us realize their ideal future. We have worshiped and loved these leaders, so we accept, or have accepted, their guidance.

  • Emmeline Pankhurst was a social reformer who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. Suffragettes followed her unquestioningly because she was a charismatic leader, a powerful orator, and endured 13 imprisonments for the sake of her cause.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. was an activist and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He endured personal attacks, and loss for the sake of equality.
  • Marie Curie founded the science of radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first Person to win a second Nobel Prize.
  • Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white person. She challenged race segregation in American and her protest sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Nelson Mandela spent 30 years in prison. He was a leader before he was an official authority figure in South Africa.
  • George Washington was our country’s first president. Before that he was given real authority to lead the colonies armies against England in our Revolutionary War. Soldiers followed him because of his ability to lead, and unflinching integrity.

A good leader can motivate her followers regardless of the institutional power she may or may not have been assigned. To be considered a leader among your subordinates, a manager must be able to encourage and inspire his employees and peers. Any authority fighter must have the respect of those she intends to lead to be an effective leader.

Authority and Leadership

There is a difference between a boss and a leader; a President and World Leader; a Pope and a beloved Leader; and a Parent and a Leader. Understanding that Leadership is derived from the respect you’re able to garner, not the position you’re assigned is the single most important thing any leader will address first.

An office manager, boss, Senator, President, Queen, Parent, or High-School principal may have worked very hard to achieve the position in their organization, political party, or household that they now have. However, there is a difference between commanding the respect of the people who follow you willingly, and demanding respect from subordinates who find you weak, wishy-washy, demanding, or narcissistic.
True leaders, as world history has borne out, command the love, respect, and admiration of their willing followers.

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