Authority - a short enquiry

Authority is the legitimate use of power.

But what do we count as legitimate authority and how is such legitimacy achieved?

Authority – a short enquiry

The NIODA Group Relations Working Conference in November 2019 (Identity, Gender, Authority and Community at Work) has a focus on how difference and identity influence the ways we take up authority and leadership. Authority is the legitimate use of power. But what do we count as legitimate authority and how is such legitimacy achieved?

Perhaps it means legitimate given the laws of the group, community or organisation, however formed and even when those laws may appear to be unfair or unethical? The idea of the ‘divine right’ of a monarch is seen as bestowing legitimate power from a deity, for example; or the power of a dictator may be legitimate in the sense of their power being supported in the law even when that law is despotic. There is an underlying assumption here that authority is linked to charisma – a term derived from the Greek ‘gift of grace’. Although now meaning a special power to influence others, its origins in divine conferral are clear.

Or, legitimacy may mean when the law and authority is endorsed by a majority, such as we believe occurs in a democracy – even if that majority may be persuaded by ‘false consciousness’ or misinformation, or even when there is awareness of the influence of ideological thinking (Zizek 1989 – The Sublime Object of Ideology) but with a blind trust in figures of authority.

Authority and its legitimacy, from a psychoanalytic perspective, stems from primary authority figures – parents, other family figures and teachers. The unconscious picture of authority is formed in early experience and then projected onto new figures of authority. The legitimacy here lies at both somatic and psychological levels and strong emotions of love, fear, anger and dependency are attached. Consequently, legitimacy in social settings may be achieved insofar as authorities mirror or resonate with unconscious images.

And, what of authority in those organisations that operate in a capitalist system? Authority lies in the structure of governance. First, company boards confer authority to senior staff. And boards, if they are vigilant and driven by organisational purpose, will attend to markets. In this sense, the authority invested in the board is market influenced, if not market-driven. The process is similar in family-owned or individually owned businesses. Except that there may or may not be a board in the governance structure. In the not-for-profit sector, most often a board drawn from the community and specialist professions is in place.

Such organisational systems are quite different to a democratic country government. In democratically elected government organisations, the legitimacy of authority is ultimately in the hands of ministers who delegate to public servants (even if the public servants have other powers of their own). Whereas the authority of the minister is endorsed by election from the group who vote, in companies and other organisations authority is bestowed from a few in specialised roles.

All this indicates that there may be good or bad authority as well as good or bad leaders who wield authority. As authority makes decisions on behalf of the group/community, so good authority makes decisions that fit laws that benefit the group as a whole and its individual members as much as possible. Any political system may become corrupt and no longer benefit the group, so it is important to find the safeguards that work against corruption: some of which might be in the ways we construct the nature of authority. So, the question of authority crosses the paths of group psychology/dynamics and political analysis.

How we conceive of authority is influenced by the way we recognise the source of its legitimacy: who confers what on whom. Put this way, it is apparent that identities are at play. Our creation of, and then perceptions and experiences of different identity groupings are critical because such distinctions so often endow the different groupings with differential charisma, power, capabilities, emotions, opinions and worth on the basis of unconscious assumptions, defensive dynamics and rivalrous intentions.

This group relations conference gives members the opportunity to look at how gender, identity and our understanding of community, in our work organisations in particular, affect the nature of authority and leadership. The conference uses experiential methods so that conference participants can learn from their own experience of gender and other identities in the different groups that the conference offers. The conference is a learning community structured as a temporary organisation.

The staff of the conference have been chosen to work alongside conference members in this exploration and has developed a program for this purpose.  Please visit for a description and for online registration.

Susan Long

legitimate authority
Conference Director
NIODA 2019 Group Relations Conference

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