So, which would you rather have — power or authority? They’re not the same, although they do overlap quite a bit. My guess is most people never thought about it, and neither did I, until I read an entire book devoted to the relationship between the two.
The first aspect to consider is that one can have authority, but no power, as well as the other way around. For instance, a president in his last year of office is a lame duck, he is politically powerless except his role as commander in chief. Another example is the English monarch who has authority without power — she is only a figurehead.
A stereotype is the backseat driver or the woman behind the throne — power, but no authority. It seems that clout without authority often accompanies women’s roles, but assistants, secretaries, bodyguards and other gatekeepers can be men.
Perhaps the reason that power and authority become confounded is that they so often go together as with a policeman, who has both. The book I mentioned is something I read in graduate school, a good thirty years ago — I don’t remember either the title or the author, but I never stopped thinking about it.
The dictionary is no help, it defines authority as power and the other way around, so the puzzle remains unsolved — what is the difference? It seems to me that authority is something that is given to someone, either by another authority, possibly earned or by election — the consent of the governed.
If you think about it, power is much more elusive — what determines a person’s power? Children, even infants, have power, as every parent eventually realizes. In as much as at least one aspect of power is the ability to control or manipulate others, it must be something intrinsic. Is it a psychological aspect, a factor of personality that we are born with? Or is it an attribute of the way our relationships are structured, a creation of our society?
What keeps me wondering about this, I think, is the mystery of why some people have power, and others don’t. The captain of a ship has absolute authority, but some captains have that element of command that induces them to follow him because they want to.
If you ever wondered what was so exceptional about George Washington it is the fact that his soldiers would follow him anywhere; their love and respect for him is primarily what put him in the history books. He didn’t write any books or outstanding speeches — he didn’t write, or even sign, the Declaration of Independence. He wasn’t a great thinker either, and it is hard to point to any major accomplishment other than the fact that he was able to lead his army through hardship, misery and defeat to essentially outlast the British. That he persevered is one thing, but that he was able to keep everyone else in the game is something else.
Step-parents and in-laws have no authority but still may have power in the family. Another example of power without authority is the way numerous first ladies had considerable power to influence important social changes, and did so without authority.
There are numerous instances like this, and I continue to wonder, just how do people with no authority, gain power? I wish I knew!
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.