Personal authority

Andrew Sullivan quotes Simone Weil

… those to whom destiny lends might perish for having relied too much upon it. It is impossible that they should not perish. For they never think of their own strength as a limited quantity nor of their relations with others as an equilibrium of unequal powers. Other men do not impose upon their acts that moment for pausing from which alone our consideration for our fellows proceeds: they conclude from this that destiny has given all licence to them and none to their inferiors.

Henceforth they go beyond the measure of their strength, inevitably so, because they do not know its limit. Thus they are delivered up helpless before chance, and things no longer obey them. Sometimes chance serves them, at other times it hinders, and here they are, exposed, naked before misfortune without that armour of might which protected their souls, without anything any more to separate them from tears..

Andrew points at Dick Cheney with this in mind; it made me think of the Ceaucescu clip I’ve referred to before. (It’s the Rumanian dictator’s last speech and the most stunning example I can recall of seeing power slip from someone’s hand in a few seconds.)

I sometimes show this to people to suggest thinking about two kinds of power in organisations. There’s the power of office, the kind Simone Weil fingers above. It’s attractive; many of us see progress in life as the accumulation of it. And if you’re trying to relate to someone who’s got a lot of it, it sometimes seems as if your hands are tied. I often find people telling me they’d like to do something different, but their boss… (you can fill in the blank).

Fortunately, not all bosses are tyrants. These are the folks you find in organisations who seem to get ahead – or maybe just get along – without relying too much on their formal title. Maybe they’re more in touch with a second kind of power, which I suppose I could call personal authority. Perhaps they’re more in touch with the value of influence, rather than control. My hunch is that they’re sensitive and grounded; they are open to being affected by others without being overwhelmed. The sensitivity stops them from tipping into grandiosity and hubris; the groundedness means they’re able to hold a position when needed.

More to follow…

4 thoughts on “Personal authority

  1. Matt Moore

    Johnnie – The 2 forms of power you talk about remind me of debates over “hard” (military might) & “soft” (cultural authority) power in international relations / political science.

    To over-generalise, many senior managers I have encountered tend to use influence over their peers & seniors and brute authority over their subordinates (although many are more nuanced than that stereotype suggests).

    A part of me also wonders the extent to which subordinates become complicit in their manager’s exercises of authority.

  2. Michael Wagner

    Johnnie – fortunately it is true that “not all bosses are tyrants”.

    However, the ones that are can serve as inspiration to look for our freedom and satisfaction elsewhere.

    I served a up a silly poem about that very subject this weekend in case you would like to take a peek.

    Keep creating,


  3. Jack Yan

    I love it, Johnnie: ‘Maybe they’re more in touch with a second kind of power, which I suppose I could call personal authority.’ It’s an excellent breakdown about leaders who grow their businesses: their balance allows them to do it. I would say that there is even some parallel to the type of leader Jim Collins wrote of.

       Mike, surfing over to spot your blog now.


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