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Power & Authority in Leadership Styles

June Wai See Leung, Rob Wengrzyn
  • Author
    June Wai See Leung

    June Leung has a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and has taught high school students STEM topics.

  • Instructor
    Rob Wengrzyn

    Rob has an MBA in management, a BS in marketing, and is a doctoral candidate in organizational theory and design.

Understand what the difference is between power and authority. Learn how leaders have the power to influence values that affect behavior. Learn about power vs authority with examples. Updated: 04/26/2022

Power vs Authority

While power and authority can seem similar in everyday language, these are different concepts. Both authority and power are important to consider for effective leadership, as leaders have the power to influence values that affect behaviors. Power refers to the ability or potential for an individual to influence others and control their behavior. For example, a boss in a company has the power to set up regulations for the company's daily functioning. Authority refers to the legal and formal right to give commands and make decisions. For example, a manager has the authority to revise employees' work schedules based on the needs of the company.

Views of Different Management

Let us take a look at a few types of management. Taking a moment to look at this will help us frame out the difference in power, leadership, authority and influence. This will give us a baseline to start from as we dive deeper into these four areas later in the lesson.

When we think of power, which is the ability to do something the specific way you want it done by any means necessary, one individual that comes to mind is Napoleon Bonaparte. He ruled his kingdom with an iron fist and had no problems going to war to defend it or to help it grow. His management was by power only, and if you argued with his perspective, you were not going to be around for very long.

We then can take a moment to look at leadership. A person that comes to mind is John Kennedy. President Kennedy challenged NASA to put a man on the moon and through leadership, convinced and motivated his team to make that happen. His accomplishments did not come by using power, but by using leadership and painting a vision for others to follow.

Now we have authority. Here, we do not need to isolate a great leader; we can look at just about any policeman or fireman and say they have authority. When a policeman tells you do to something, you usually comply, as he is in a position of authority. The truth is most managers are in a position of authority; what differs is just how they use it. That is because with authority, a person has the right to give you an order or direction.

Finally, we have influence, which really is focused on having an impact on someone's character, their development or even the way they think. Thus, for influence, we can look at a priest or an instructor, anyone that has an informal position but has the ability to direct or change the viewpoint or character of another.

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Differences Between Power and Authority

In the context of the workplace, there are some differences between power and authority :

  • Meaning — Power refers to the ability to control others' behavior. Authority refers to the legal and formal right to influence others' behavior.
  • Source — Power is considered to be acquired, and in leadership, it generally refers to knowledge and expertise in an individual. Authority, on the other hand, is considered to be given by some form of organization and is attached to the position instead of to the individual.
  • Hierarchy — Power is not hierarchical. As power refers to how one can influence others' behavior, in leadership and workplace settings, power can flow between different people working at the same level or across different levels (both upward and downward). Authority, however, is hierarchical and it flows downward. Authority is often given to a position and the person that is in that position, which allows them to conduct actions through others. Therefore authority flows from individuals in a higher position to the ones in a lower position in an organization.
  • Ability To Be Lost — Both power and authority can be lost. Power consists of different components which each have different effects on one's power in an organization. For example, power can be lost by poor actions and behavior. However, some power is more difficult to lose, such as the power associated with the experience one has in an industry. Since authority is associated with a position, an individual will lose their authority only when they are removed from the position or when the authority is removed from that position.
  • Formality — Power can be both formal and informal. An example of informal power can be observed in an assistant who may have the informal power of controlling who can meet the CEO. Authority, on the other hand, is always formal, as it is given to an individual in a specific position and its influence is clearly defined.
  • Legitimacy — Power can be obtained in different ways, sometimes even illegitimate ways, and it can be abused. Therefore, it is generally considered less legitimate than authority. Since authority is granted by someone higher up in the organization, the legitimacy of that person's position will have an effect on the legitimacy of one's authority.

Leadership Authority

A leader is someone who has the power and/ or authority to influence others' behavior. How these elements are used will be different for different leadership styles. These leadership styles have different pros and cons, their effectiveness can be affected by the characteristics of the leader, the task at hand, and the members of the team. There are four major leadership styles:

Comparing and Contrasting These Elements

Now that we have an understanding of these different elements, it's important we look deeper into them and understand how they compare and contrast - and in some ways coexist with each other. Power is a fairly abstract concept. A person can be in a formal position to wield power (say, maybe a king, a president or someone like that) or they can have informal power (potentially, the secretary for the president of a large company). It has been said, 'If you cannot get past the secretary, you will never speak to the man or woman behind them.' Thus, power can be formal or informal.

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Video Transcript

Views of Different Management

Let us take a look at a few types of management. Taking a moment to look at this will help us frame out the difference in power, leadership, authority and influence. This will give us a baseline to start from as we dive deeper into these four areas later in the lesson.

When we think of power, which is the ability to do something the specific way you want it done by any means necessary, one individual that comes to mind is Napoleon Bonaparte. He ruled his kingdom with an iron fist and had no problems going to war to defend it or to help it grow. His management was by power only, and if you argued with his perspective, you were not going to be around for very long.

We then can take a moment to look at leadership. A person that comes to mind is John Kennedy. President Kennedy challenged NASA to put a man on the moon and through leadership, convinced and motivated his team to make that happen. His accomplishments did not come by using power, but by using leadership and painting a vision for others to follow.

Now we have authority. Here, we do not need to isolate a great leader; we can look at just about any policeman or fireman and say they have authority. When a policeman tells you do to something, you usually comply, as he is in a position of authority. The truth is most managers are in a position of authority; what differs is just how they use it. That is because with authority, a person has the right to give you an order or direction.

Finally, we have influence, which really is focused on having an impact on someone's character, their development or even the way they think. Thus, for influence, we can look at a priest or an instructor, anyone that has an informal position but has the ability to direct or change the viewpoint or character of another.

Comparing and Contrasting These Elements

Now that we have an understanding of these different elements, it's important we look deeper into them and understand how they compare and contrast - and in some ways coexist with each other. Power is a fairly abstract concept. A person can be in a formal position to wield power (say, maybe a king, a president or someone like that) or they can have informal power (potentially, the secretary for the president of a large company). It has been said, 'If you cannot get past the secretary, you will never speak to the man or woman behind them.' Thus, power can be formal or informal.

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