Concept of Authority – Origin, types, power and abuse of authority

We explain what authority is, its origin and what types exist. Also, its relationship with power and what is the abuse of authority.

Authority is the legitimate exercise of command, as it is accepted by subordinates.

What is authority?

With the term authority we refer to the legitimate exercise of command, that is, to the power that is granted in a consensual and normative way to those who possess the necessary competencies for leadership or decision making.

Thus, when a person with authority gives an instruction, the normal thing is that his subordinates feel moved to carry it out. The latter, that acceptance and recognition of command, is key to understanding authority and distinguishing it from other non-legitimate forms of power.

The word authority comes from Latin auctoritas, derived from auctor (“Author”). In Ancient Rome, this last word not only referred to those who create something or originate something of value, as we understand today, but it also alluded to those who are concerned with making something grow or taking it on the right path.

Thus, the auctoritas was the recognition of the beneficial power that was exercised over another, that is, that a ruler had auctoritas (“Authority”) to the extent that his government was good and accepted by his people.

Authority is the object of study of various disciplines such as law, politics and sociology, among others, and has also been approached philosophically by thinkers such as Max Weber (1864-1920) or Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968).

Origin of authority

All authority has an origin, in the sense that owes its legitimate and formal character to compliance with some kind of socio-political rules of the game. Thus, for example, in a democracy, compliance with what is established in the laws and popular participation are what decide who has political authority.

This figure arose together with human societies, the result of the need for human beings to group together to ensure mutual survival in a hostile world.

The need for hierarchies, organizational methods and forms of political power would then appear as a tool to lead society, to decide who to listen to and what to do when a leader perishes or cannot continue to be so, given that he has ceased to be so. be beneficial to the whole of the society he governed.

Types of authority

authority types
Traditional authority is based on a tradition that allows hereditary power.

According to what is postulated by Max Weber, authority is classified into three different types, according to the way it is received or earned:

  • Traditional authority. It is based on the principle of custom (the customary), that is, on the continuation of the way in which things have been done before. This type of authority is acquired thanks to tradition, that is, to norms and agreements that have been reinforced in society from generation to generation over time, and allow the management of hereditary, transmissible and irrational power, such as the case of monarchies, whose access to the throne is transmitted from father to son.
  • Rational-legal authority. It is based on the pact or the agreement, that is, on what the laws establish (positive law). He handles power according to the principle of obedience to the law, not to the person who governs, and responds to a formal framework through which said power must be exercised, as does a president-elect to govern a country, whose power is limited by other political powers and must necessarily submit to the rule of law.
  • Charismatic authority. It is based on respect, admiration and devotion to the capabilities of a person, which is why it proposes a model of irrational and personalistic power, which nevertheless eventually ends up becoming a traditional authority. This is the case, for example, of the authority of a preacher over his congregation, or of a captain of a sports team.

On the other hand, and reading other authors, one can also distinguish between legal forms of authority (which are imposed by obligation), and moral forms of authority (which are imposed by conviction).

Authority and power

Although all authority implies an exercise of power and command, we must not confuse authority with power itself. The first must have foundations, that is, it must be recognized by those subordinate to it, while power can be exercised in tyrannical and non-consensual ways.

For example, a legitimately elected president is an authority figure, while a military man who carries out a coup and establishes a dictatorship has power, but despite the resistance of the citizens.

Authority abuse

When we speak of abuse of authority or abuse of power, we normally refer to the illegitimate and / or illegal handling of power by a person who accesses it thanks to their authority.

That is to say, occurs when someone endowed with authority uses his power to further himself or his interests. Such a breakdown of the rules of the game goes against his own authority, and is capable, in the opinion of his subordinates, of depriving him of it and therefore of access to power.