Authority vs. Power

I have always been fascinated by the differences between Authority and Power. There are many definitions, but I’ll use these:

Authority is rightful (legal) power. It is bestowed by birth (royal), election, appointment, or opportunity.

Authority is easy to find: It wears special clothing, sits on throne chairs, or in private offices, has an impressive title, and often a large staff. It may be chiseled into marble outside a public building. You even find it on business and calling cards..

Power is the ability to influence the outcome of events. It comes from influence (trust), expert knowledge,  personality, or opportunity.

Power is far less obvious than Authority. Power may look like everybody and everything else, stand quietly in the background observing, maybe even taking notes, and never calls attention to itself through appearances or behavior. Power has good manners. It exists in the shadows. It is often found in adjutants, deputies, chiefs of staff, advisers, spouses, and aides.

Power and Authority often come together. The story is told of Alexander the Great being asked who he thought was the most powerful person in the world. He replied, “My infant son is by far the most powerful. He rules his mother. His mother rules me. And I rule the world.”

Another favorite example of Power is the story told of the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. Augustus was sending his ambassadors to the far reaches of the Roman Empire, beyond the pall, where they might be subject to attack by marauding tribes. His advisers were discussing how many Roman Legions should accompany them for their protection. Augustus realized that the entire world knew and feared the power of Rome. It was, for example, Rome’s policy to never abandon a war or forgive an insult. If an enemy could hold off one legion, a year or so later, two legions would show up at their back door. Beat them, and next spring you’ll find four legions marching on your gates. Rome vowed this would continue until every man, woman, and child in the Roman Empire was involved in the attack. There was no way to win.

Augustus dictated a message which his scribes put into the language of every tribe they might encounter in their travels. The ambassadors traveled with a light guard to protect them against road bandits  and a scroll bearing the Seal of Rome, known throughout the world. The scroll would be handed, or read, to every distant war lord the delegation encountered. The scroll read: “Do not harm Caesar’s friends unless you are certain you can defeat Caesar in battle.”

The trip went off without a hitch.

There aren’t many dramatic anecdotes about Power alone, but we sometimes see it: The trusted adviser whispering in the king’s, or president’s, ear. The president’s spouse offering an opinion. The general who sends his top sergeant to check out something important for him. The person whom the boss asks for an opinion last and hears in return: “May we discuss this in private?” The salesman who understands the road to the buyer’s office runs right through the gate controlled by the buyer’s administrator. The child who knows that to get something very important, they ask Mom to discuss it with Dad. And, as I learned in my Army days, the lieutenant who learns never, ever to cross the first sergeant.

A history teacher once told me that if you examine the court portraits of the kings and doges of the Middle Ages you will often find a different king on the front throne, but if you look closely enough, you may see the same common looking face, standing in the same spot, often on the king’s right, in several successive court portraits. Sometimes Power outlives Authority.

Always respect the title and the Authority – but – it helps to know where the Power is too.

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