Authority and Power

Last night we popped out to watch ‘Doubt; a Parable at the Festival theatre. A 5 star performance from 4 players who worked hard to produce a memorable experience.

It came at a time when I’ve been reflecting on Authority and Power.  The play was all about the interplay of these two themes; on the one hand the priest, part of the rigid patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and on the other, the principal of the school, in the same hierarchy but at a much lower level. He had the authority, but she the power, or did she? Which is where the doubt comes in, and the audience leaves the theatre wondering.

My reflections on the nature of authority and power arise from my training and troubleshooting in charities and churches over the last 25 years. In my training sessions it’s always been a key element of my material. On the one hand there is the authority vested in the trustees who are accountable to the regulator and other bodies; on the other hand the executive, whose accountability, If there is such, often lies elsewhere. My aim being to highlight the dangers and propose solid, safe pathways to protect all the parties from the difficulties that might arise on their journey together. Our present prime minister, despite being a classics scholar clearly lacks understanding in this area; he had the authority to sack Dominic Cummings, but he failed to think through Dominic’s power in the situation. I have authority in my home, but Millie is very clear that if I don’t walk her in the next ten minutes our lounge carpet will never be the same.

Returning to my work with charities, whenever I was drawn into help with issues that had cropped up, the chances were that there was a failure to understand the dynamics of the authority and power structures in the organisation. The brutal and often unrecognised truth is that an individual or a group may have the authority, but they cannot move or implement decisions without the power. Generally power is earned and can be found at different levels.

Too often trustee boards are emasculated by powerful executive individuals or teams. This can work for many years, but if power is exercised wrongly, without controls and accountability, a day of reckoning will come, and the fallout can be disastrous. A board unused to exercising power and suddenly having to make tough decisions can find life difficult. The school principal in Doubt exercised her power by telling lies, ‘I departed from God to achieve the right result’, she said. I’ve experienced this myself a few times in naked demonstrations of power with accountability only in name. 

Someone stole a significant sum of money from me a few years back. The police initially saw it as an open and shut case. Sadly, for a number of reasons, they lacked the power to mount a successful prosecution, so their authority failed. I’ve seen too many situations go bad because those who had the authority lacked the power to do what they needed to do in a timely manner.

What then is the answer? The five golden threads of Collaboration, Mutuality, Accountability, Honesty, Transparency; all must be a part of the process. Take time to understand the implications of any mismatch in your situation. Listen, really listen, to others as well as to God. (When I’m discussing these issues with church leaders and trustees I often find space to ask, ‘who are you accountable to?’ Too often I get the response, ‘I’m accountable to God’. When I hear this, I just know there’s trouble ahead.) I leave you with two questions: if you have authority in a situation, do you have the power? If you have the power, do you have the authority? Please respond if you have thoughts or comments on this.

I think we need one of John Birch’s prayers to end on

Lord, We pray for our leaders locally and nationally

With difficult decisions to make

Affecting the lives of so many.

May they be guided not by any personal agenda, but work

For the common good of all.

That this world might be led to a better place, where trust and honesty

Are the values demonstrated in those we choose to lead us.

7 thoughts on “Authority and Power

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  1. Can we learn to know who we are …and listen to others before taking action….and there is God do we ask him

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  2. The other pairing that interests me is the balance between authority and responsibility. Whenever these are out of balance, i.e. people have authority but don’t bear the responsibility for their actions – this situation will lead to abuse. Or when someone has responsibility but not sufficient authority, this will lead to inaction.
    I admit however, that my model implies that those with authority have the power, so your observations are helpful. Thanks Daryl.

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    1. Pete, I need to give this some thought. I agree that responsibility does need to be in the mix. Even as ordinary citizens we have responsibilities even though we may not have authority or power. Many of the mistakes I have made in my long life are to do with acts of omission rather than commission. Neglecting to be kind, or generous, or caring, being too bound up with my own journey. You make some good points. Peace and joy be yours, Daryl

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  3. Dear Daryl,

    Yes, I too have seen the play which was extremely thought provoking. Of
    all the plays we have seen locally it created the greatest level of
    discussion in the foyer before we all wended our way home.

    Your post leaves me with various thoughts. The strongest of which is
    that, whilst one’s position might give you authority, unless you are
    also given power as well your authority is not much use. There is also
    the dilemma of a chairman who is approached by someone in the
    organisation with a legitimate concern about a senior person within the
    organisation which attempts are being made to resolve. One knows that
    the person raising the issue is right but the chairman can’t be seen to
    be taking sides as part of their role is to support the said senior person.

    This whole question of Authority and power comes to a head time and time
    again in organisations where the boss will accept no query or suggestion
    about a decision made. Most often visible when a person is promoted to
    the level of their incompetence and in order to hide their insecurities
    will not listen to alternative ideas or queries raised about the decision.

    Enough from me! you have raised a very serious discussion about an area
    of life that is probably behind one of the greatest blocks to efficiency
    or success in any number of situations.

    Your posts are appreciated.

    Kind Regards,

    Ray

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    1. Ray, you’ve made some excellent points. Thankyou for taking the time to reply. You’re absolutely right; ‘Insecure’ leadership has a lot to answer for. I’ve been watching re-runs of Drop the Dead Donkey. There’s a lot of cynicism but the interplay of authority and power is fascinating. The editor has the authority but very little power; his boss claims to have no authority but in reality he has the power in spades. But he also has a boss who has the ultimate power. Thanks again. Peace and blessings, Daryl

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