Is Obedience To Authority A Virtue Or A Crime?

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World War II marks a turning point in almost every facet of mankind. From science to engineering, from business to politics, to the very core of our culture, the world changed as America rebuilt Europe and reframed Japan. You see a shift from a feudal/monarchical-centric philosophy towards a populace/organizational-centric viewpoint.

Within the academic arena, research on authority moved from the Sociology Department to the Psychology Department. In fact, one of the most famous and useful psychology experiments of the mid-twentieth century represents this shift. It answered the most compelling question regarding the nature of authority to come out of the Second World War.

The Psychological Origins of Authority

You might not recognize the name Stanley Milgram, but you’ll instantly recognize his greatest achievement.

The discovery of the gruesome Nazi atrocities carried out during World War II dazed people in disbelief. How could any human being do that to another human being? Many people wanted to know the answer. Stanley Milgram was one of those people.

In the opening chapter of his book Obedience to Authority (1974, Harper & Row), Milgram writes, “It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945, millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders… they do so because they consider it their duty to obey orders. Thus, obedience to authority, long praised as a virtue, takes on a new aspect when it serves a malevolent cause; far from appearing as a virtue, it is transformed into a heinous crime. Or is it?”

This was the question that vexed the moral multitude. Unlike most, though, Milgram was in a position to do something about it.

Stanley Milgram was a psychology professor at Yale University who created one of the most memorable experiments. You’ve likely seen references to it in serious literature. You’ve seen it spoofed in movies. You’ve probably read about it if you ever took an introductory course in psychology or marketing.

The experiment involved subjects sitting in front of an impressive electrical panel. They were instructed to administer an electric shock to a “learner” by turning a knob every time the learner answered incorrectly. The learner never really received a shock, but the subject didn’t know that.

To the amazement of everyone, these subjects—regular everyday people—consistently went beyond the “safe” zone to inflict learners with “painful” shocks when told to do so. Yes, people obey orders even if those orders entail hurting someone else.

Although this was the focus of much of the attention, there was another variation to the experiment that told us more about authority. When the “authority” left the room, obedience declined dramatically.

This tells us authority may not be as sticky as the name implies. Is this true of authority in general, or are there different types of authority?

In fact, although there’s no consensus on the number, there are certainly different “flavors” of authority. If you surf your favorite search engine, you’ll find anywhere from 2 to 18 types of authority. The short lists don’t explain the full range and there’s a lot of overlap in the longer lists. We’ve reduced them here to four E’s:

Entitlement Authority: This is what most people assume authority means. It involves position and titles. This would include elected officials, executive officers, and pretty much anyone wearing a uniform. This kind of authority is easy to attain (get yourself hired) but just as easy to lose (get yourself fired). It’s also easy for people to ignore. A title is merely a title and doesn’t necessarily require expertise. Which naturally leads to…

Expert Authority: While it might not come immediately to mind when they think “authority,” when they have a specific question, many people turn immediately to someone they consider an expert. Experts have demonstrated technical prowess in a consistent and efficient manner. There’s a downside to relying on this form of authority. First, it is limited to your area of expertise (and once you get pigeon-holed as an expert in one field, it’s difficult to spread those pigeon wings into another field). Second, technology and knowledge are constantly being updated. If you can’t keep your expertise up to date, it will grow stale and other experts will leap ahead of you in the minds of people. This doesn’t mean you forever lose your authority status; it just means you shift your perspective to…

Engagement Authority: If you’re looking for an answer, but don’t know who has it, what’s your next best option? Go to someone you know who has connections to the people who have the answers. Those with engagement authority have informal contracts or commitments with people beyond your sphere. They act, in effect, as gatekeepers to the answers you seek. The risk here is the same risk all middlemen have: the client will eventually discover either a less expensive middleman or learn how to eliminate the middleman all together. This risk exists even as the authority continues to build contacts and connections. This leaves the one authority that rules them all…

Earned Authority: Why do some celebrities flash briefly like a meteor streaking across the night sky while others endure like the everlasting stars? It usually comes down to one thing: personality, those that last have effective brand management campaigns. They remain in the forefront of people’s minds no matter how the tide ebbs and flows. If you’re seeking sustainable authority, earned authority provides an option that also enhances your leadership portfolio.

Let’s talk about the importance of earned authority and leadership. Earned authority, as we’ll see in a moment, implies visibility in a way no other authority option can. It’s this visibility which augments one’s familiarity and likeability. Look upon this as your personal Q Score (or “Q-Rating” as it is more popularly referred to).

For those not familiar with it, a Q Score is “the recognized industry standard for measuring consumer appeal of personalities, characters, licensed properties, programs, and brands.” At least that’s what its website says. But it can be illustrative of the advantages of earned authority.

Perhaps a better way to think of the practical aspects of earned authority is by answering the following question:

Which of the great New York Yankees captains would you want to motivate you?

Lou Gehrig? You’ll probably answer yes, but only if you’re old enough to remember his significance. For a long time, he was the last Yankee captain. He served from 1935 to 1939, when, after playing a then unheard-of record 2,130 games, he retired due to complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable disease now known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” He died in 1941. The following year, Hollywood honored him with the film The Pride of the Yankees. Gehrig himself had appeared (as himself) in the 1938 movie Rawhide. Such was Gehrig’s impact on the Yankees that, out of respect for him, they refused to name another captain for 30 years. Not even Joe DiMaggio, another Yankee with a through-the-roof Q-Rating, could overshadow Gehrig’s respect.

Derek Jeter? Sure, who wouldn’t? Jeter served as captain from 2003 until his retirement in 2014. He eventually became CEO and part owner of the Miami Marlins. Jeter was another Yankee with a tremendous Q-Rating. Not only has he appeared in many national marketing campaigns for a variety of products, he also has made cameo appearances in movies, TV shows, and even as a character in a Broadway play. Yeah, you’d definitely pick him as a motivational speaker.

Thurman Munson? You’re probably asking, “Who?” Remember how the Yankees waited 30 years before naming another captain after Gehrig? That captain was Thurman Munson, who was tragically killed in a plane crash only a few years after being named captain.

This shows why earned authority is more than just being a leader in your chosen field. Earned authority is like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location!

All three Yankee captains were no doubt leaders in the locker room. In fact, that’s where earned authority starts. In effect, this is a form of expert authority. But, remember, expert authority is both limited and fleeting. Once you leave the locker room through retirement or otherwise, your authority is gone.

To transform that initial expert authority into earned authority, you’ll have to leverage that expertise before it can define (and thus confine) you. You need to take it outside the locker room. This may explain why Thurman Munson draws a blank stare while Lou Gehrig and Derek Jeter get an immediate thumbs up.

Here’s another example from the sports world (with a boost from Hollywood). In the 1980 Olympics, a rag-tag bunch of college-aged boys beat the professionals of the Soviet Union and other nations to win the Men’s Hockey Gold Medal. Mike Eruzione was the captain of that team. After the victory, he remained well known solely in New England (where he is from) and the hockey world. These were his locker rooms.

In 2004, the movie Miracle dramatically depicted the 1980 US Olympic Hockey win. Eruzione’s locker room role played magnificently to the audiences. His earned authority spread from the locker room to the masses. As a result, he commanded top dollar as a motivational speaker, placing him at the top echelon of keynoters.

Not everyone performs on elite sports playing fields. Not everyone needs a national audience. Still, earned authority is attainable for most within the markets you desire to impress. There’s a fairly straight-forward, albeit rigorous, strategy for building and maintaining earned authority.

But if you want to see your business soar ever upward, do you have any other choice but to undertake this strategy? What can you do to influence the actions and decisions of others?


  1. […] Which one represents the one you should be aiming for? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Is Obedience To Authority A Virtue Or A Crime?” to discover the difference between leadership and authority inside the locker room versus those […]

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