The Three Classic Forms Of Authority

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What is “authority” and how does it differ from “power” and “influence”?

Ironically, we can see elements of authority in the original research on power bases as well as an explicit reference to it in research on influence and persuasion. Yet, an authority doesn’t necessarily have influence. And if you don’t have influence, can it really be said that you have power?

Said another way, power is the ability to impose your will upon others, authority is the honest recognition of power by others, and influence is your ability to sway others regardless of your power or authority.

To better understand this, it’s important to explore how scholars have traditionally defined authority. Through this, we’ll see why some “authority” is powerless, why some authority evaporates quickly, and what kind of authority has real staying power.

The Sociological Origins of Authority

Academics credit Karl Emil Maximilian “Max” Weber, an early 20th century philosopher and economist, with co-founding the field of sociology. He’s also the person who coined the term “Protestant work ethic” (in his 1905 book “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”). It was the post-humous publication of his unfinished magnum opus that starts our journey into the realm of authority.

Economy and Society (1922) is a collection of Weber’s essays compiled by his wife. While disenchanted with politics and politicians (both the left and the right criticized him), political leadership nonetheless fascinated him. He delivered one of those essays to students at Munich University in the form of a speech on January 28, 1919.

In this essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber says, “Anybody who practices politics is striving for power, either power as an instrument to pursue a goal—a goal that can be idealistic or selfish—or to enjoy power for the sake of power itself because it gives [pleasurable] feelings of prestige.” His cynicism is quite apparent here. Perhaps it explains why the establishment wasn’t fond of him.

In fact, he bluntly states politicians rule by means of “legitimate but coercive power” (that is, legitimate in the eyes of the people). Furthermore, to make sure this rule remains sustainable, “the people who are ruled need to submit to this dominating coercive authority.” He then offered three principles that justify the legitimacy of this domination: Traditional Authority, Charismatic Authority, and Legal Authority.

These three authorities appear to be written in an evolutionary format. To best see this, I’ll provide you Weber’s exact words:

“Traditional Authority: First is the authority of an ‘eternal yesterday.’ This type of authority is based on conventions which possess validity through habitual attitudes toward keeping sanctified customs. This ‘traditional’ type of dominion [Herrschaft] was practiced by patriarchs and patrimonial princes of the old school.”

“Charismatic Authority: But in addition [secondly], there is authority which is based on a special personal spiritual gift (charisma), and which is reflected in a personal dedication to, and a personal trust in revelation, heroism, or other traits characteristic of A Leader [Führer]. This kind of charismatically based Herrschaft was practiced by a prophet or—if you think in political dimensions—by a chosen warlord, or [in Rome] the popularly elected ‘Ruler,’ the great demagogue, and the Leader of political parties.”

“Legal Authority: Finally, there is the authority of effective dominion [Herrschaft] based on ‘legality,’ the belief in the validity of legal statutes which is justified by rational rules, professional competence, [and who therefore express an obedient attitude in fulfilling their prescribed duties]. This means [dominion in a modern state] is based on modern ‘civil servants’ and on all legal holders of [legitimate] power who resemble them. It is understood that in real life such docility is caused by massive motives of fear and hope, as well as other interests. [For example], fear can be caused by the fear of revenge of magical and superstitious powers, or a ‘Ruler’ who wields power. Hope can be offered via promises of reward either during the present life on earth or in the afterlife.”

Now, lest you feel Weber’s use of the “F” word (“Führer”) might presage the justification of the nastiness that would soon consume his country, rest easy. He dismisses this form of leaders as the kind of leadership that “has appeared in every region and during every historical epoch in such figures, on the one hand, as magicians and prophets, warlords, gang leaders, or, on the other hand, as free-Italian mercenary soldiers of the Italian city-states and Papacy [Condottiere].”

But Weber’s apprehension isn’t limited to the past. He says, “political Führer-ship concerns us because later it appeared in the form of parliamentary ‘party Leader’ which only could develop in the Occident because it was rooted in the [traditions of the] constitutional state, which is also a peculiarity of the Occident.”

In case you’ve forgotten, “Occident” refers to western governments.

For Weber, the bottom-line is that, ultimately, the people decide who leads. He reminds us “the Leader [Führer] only derives legitimacy through the will of those ruled, no matter how much this legitimacy was [in name] based on the law.”

For that reason, authority ultimately comes down to an efficient delivery of services. Only the third of his Principles (Legal Authority) possesses the bureaucracy necessary to accomplish this. As a result, leaders under both Traditional Authority and Charismatic Authority must therefore evolve into a system based on Legal Authority if they intend to sustain their position.

Weber’s essay “Politics as a Vocation” offers fascinating reading in light of the political landscape in today’s America. Though written a century ago, Weber nails much of what we see today, both the good and the bad. He even discusses his concepts in terms of what he knows about the constitutional-based government of the United States. Of course, written immediately after World War I and in the midst of his (failed) political campaign, he does refer to us as “the enemy.”

More generally, though, within his structural framework, he correctly predicts the rise of the “career politician” and the growing dominance of an unelected bureaucracy. More ominously—as well as a bit eerie—he describes what happens when an outsider threatens the entrenched class. You can easily map his commentary over the Trump story.

Of note, and probably more relevant to most readers, Weber does not propose that these principles apply to the business environment. He admits of his political system, “This is separate from the question of whether such success means that they can also hope to expropriate capitalist economic business. [This is difficult because] the management of business enterprises, despite the obvious analogies to political administration, are in their essence based on different rules.”

To more fully appreciate the role of authority in the world of business and marketing, we need to shift gears from sociology to psychology. By coincidence, we’ll also move from the immediate aftermath of World War I to the era of intellectual exploration subsequent to the close of World War II.


  1. […] others have real staying power. What does this mean to you? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “The Three Classic Forms Of Authority” to see what the first part of our two-part series on authority […]

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