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The Nature of Authority

The Nature of Authority

Greg E. Williams, MD

Let us consider “Authority”. 

In our current times, we hear a lot about the role of authority, the endorsement by a group for leadership, the assumption of self-proclamation of power, and the effect of such a role has on others in their sphere of influence.  Authoritative roles allow for the organization and smooth process of decision making and directives for specific groups, ideally for the needs and benefit of those who are included in the sphere of influence of the specific setting. 

The attribution or assignment of authority by others are usually provided to a person having a quality of leadership who represents individuals within a select group.  Such a leader would be determined as a person believed to identify with the values of each individual and have an ample understanding of the common goals of the group.

Authority is then more about the quality and character of an individual that qualifies them for an authoritative role. Authority is therefore earned from others by assignment and through agreed conformity of the group.   The power granted to a person of authority is directly related to the level of cohesion and endorsement of individuals that are confident in their chosen individual to effectively lead.  


As we compare an Army General and an enlisted Private to a Platoon, we can understand how the broad experience of the General has earned our respect for him to lead.  The soldiers that look to him for direction know he has been proven by many challenges and the soldiers develop a high level of confidence in his ability to lead.  The Private would not earn the same level of confidence as others in the platoon. The Private lacks experience, knowledge, and challenges that have not earned the confidence of his peers. 


So what is authority?  

According to an internet dictionary, 

“authority is the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience”.

As we embrace this definition let us consider how it applies to what I stated earlier. As authority provides for the organization, process, and directives, this implies that the authoritative role directly impacts both the benefit and even the loss of benefit for specific groups in the sphere of influence. 


The Breakdown of Authority

The breakdown of authority occurs when the cohesion of individuals of the shared group to each other or to the leader becomes disrupted.  Central to the disconnection between all individuals is the erosion of shared agreement of common values or the loss of confidence in achieving shared goals. In other words, the quality of trust is broken.  When the bridge of trust is broken, the cohesion of alliance with others in the group becomes disrupted.  When challenges are met and prove the quality of leadership, the authoritative role of the leader will remain intact and the group will experience more cohesion and operate more as a team. 


Group Coercion

Where freedom exists for individuality that may be a threat to the trust between members or between an individual and the group leader, steps are often taken to protect the group integrity.  This is often in a form of an agreed group contract or an understood consequence, maybe even personal risk for abandonment that serves as an additional guarantee to insure obligation or commitment to the group. These measures maintain cohesion not by the trust of respecting the needs of individuals but by agreed trust and commitment to honor the values and protecting the values shared by the members of the group.  It assures the honor of all group members as more important than the identity of self. Fear of harm or risk of loss is often a very persuasive motivation, but only where the risk of group disloyalty remains present or directly vulnerable to threat. Once the threat is diminished, the need for cohesion in such cases diminishes as well. 

Group Identity

Cohesion is important not only for group direction but also for identity. Individuals that are members of a group assume the identity of membership when the cohesion is strong.  The endeavor to be identified with a group becomes a sense of pride when trust promotes a sense of belonging. True cohesion and belonging occur when this group identity adds a dimension of personal acceptance of one’s individual characteristics and personality styles, adding more value to the group. This is evident when a sports team is united by wearing a matching uniform and have familiarity with each other, providing recognition of the particular talents of each player. As players feel comfortable and feel they belong to the group, given names often get replaced by nicknames, often related to individual qualities or characteristics unique to each other.


Attributed Authority

As mentioned earlier, true authority is then more about the quality and character of an individual that qualifies them for an authoritative role.  If after a physical exam my doctor finds a suspicious mass in my lungs, I will likely be referred to an oncologist, who specializes in cancer treatment. It is because I know my doctor is familiar with cancer treatment and because I would believe he has an expert judgment on such serious matters, I willingly attribute trust to his treatment efforts.  I consider him an authority on the matter which will grant me the best chances of survival. In the arena of unknown and changing state in my treatment process, I know he will be stable support to help me get through a difficult time. 


Authority is attributed to those who are esteemed as experts in a particular area. It is attributed to one who is regarded as having mastery of a particular matter. When there are crimes occurring in my neighborhood or chaos erupting, a policeman may be called to the scene. The officer is ascribed as having authority through his role to restore peace. He is believed to have the necessary training and established skills necessary to bring an unstable situation back into control. 

How we lose Authority

It is important for us to remind ourselves that authority is something we already have.  The only way you can lose your authority is if you choose to give it away.   In fact, just the belief that you have no authority already denies you the authority you actually possess.  In the Bible story of creation, we see an example of this.  Adam and Eve were given complete authority over all of God’s creatures in the garden.  Their Authority was secured by God’s Authority. It was not taken away by anyone, but it was given away by choice, through deception. They chose to forfeit the power they already possessed for something that was fraudulently framed as better for them. In giving their authority away, they lost the privilege and honor that was theirs from the beginning. As people labor in their Christian walk throughout life, we find ourselves often daily reclaiming the authority that continues to be taken from us by deceit. It is only by recognizing our authority granted to us by God, that we can achieve a life of power and purpose through the restored relationship with God.

How Do We Reclaim our authority?

Let’s consider a simple example in order to bring clarity to this question.

Let’s say you are taking a canoe down the rapids and lose control of your vessel.  Imagine that you are capsized and before long, you are being pulled down under the water by strong currents. You feel pounded by the rough waters slapping your face, making it hard to catch your breath. Just then, you notice between choking gasps, that about ten feet away, a blurry glimpse of a rugged rock is piercing out above the turbulence of waves. You would likely spend all your remaining energy just to swim toward the rock, knowing you might then escape a watery grave.   Why would it be the best decision to swim to this rock? It is because you believe you could survive if you could find a stable, fixed spot; you can minimize the risk of death by holding to an unchanging point, where the surroundings were unstable. 

In any situation where there exists instability, we tend to notice those who appear fixed and resilient in the storms.  We gravitate toward them; we swim to them for stability. This is the way we ascribe authority. When people appear calm and in control; who appear stable and unmoved within the chaos of life, they earn authority that we ascribe to them. We believe that stable people are equipped to deal with our particular areas of concern in a calm and knowledgeable way, which grants them confidence, making them appear to have stability in an otherwise unstable circumstance. 

How do we remain stable in an unstable world?

The sea is a vast space with a rocky tide that rocks a sailboat on a very long journey.  When plotting a destination absent any instrumentation, a skilled captain can navigate by the ever-abiding stars toward his destination.  The reason why the stars offer such a reliable reference is because of the distance, regularity of pattern, and reliable light it provides when a clear view is available.  Despite the strength of changing winds, the variable intensity of rains and the occasional blanket of clouds that may blacken the sky, the reliable and dependable stars will still provide a point of reference which a Captain can depend on for his long journeys.   

You see, the stars are not affected by the weather for very long, nor does the spotted sparkling pattern change by the conditions the captain finds himself.  Even though it may be hidden from time to time, It is considered constant, therefore reliable to guide a vessel across the open sea of diverse and ever-changing currents. The captain can guide his vessel in the right direction for his travel because his eyes are fixed on something beyond the immediate, ever-changing environment. The point is that when we fix our eyes on the changing environment, we begin to succumb to the winds, the waves, and currents of life.  But when we fix our eyes on something that does not change, we take on the same nature of stability despite the environment where we find ourselves. Herein is how we maintain our authority in situations.  If we look upon the tempest and sway with opinions, criticisms, or applause, we lose our sense of stability and appear unreliable where a steady hand or secure support is needed.  However, if our eyes are fixed on the unchanging and stable matters of life, and the nature of our ever-present God,  we take upon our nature the similar characteristics of surety and stability.  Now here is the key to true authority.  If you can embrace the concept that God is always present, always sharing our life experiences and instructing us daily about trusting him, we begin to reflect the same character of stability and confidence.  When others in our sphere of influence are shaken by the temporal storms of life and become lost in their life’s course, they will often seek you out, that is swim to you for support and strength.  In other words, they will attribute authority to you all because your eyes have learned to be fixed on the eternal and not the local storms of changing settings. 


Summary Points

  1. Authority provides  organization and smooth process for decisions and plans in specific groups,
  2. Authority ideally serves the needs and is aligned to the benefit of members within in a specific sphere  
  3. Authority is earned by the presentation of knowledge and stability within the environment of chaos
  4. Authority is strengthened by the cohesion of the served members and is stabilized by a shared trust
  5. Authority is maintained internally by the trust through shared needs or externally enforced by trust in rules of consequence for abandonment by members.
  6. Authority is possessed by all people, but it is lost when given away by choice.
  7. Authority can be reclaimed by properly focusing on a stable point of reference, but is denied when the focus remains on an unstable or changing point of reference.
  8. Spiritual rest depends on the daily belief in the unchanging, loving, and instructing character of God
  9. Authority is a natural consequence of life when we learn to embrace faith in an unchanging God


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