Everyone wants the ability to change the world around them, but some carry much more influence than others. These people possess authority. Authority is an interesting thing because unlike power, which can be gained independently, authority must be given by others. From Wikipedia, “…’power’ refers to the ability to achieve certain ends, ‘authority’ refers to the legitimacy, justification and right to exercise that power. For example, whilst a mob has the power to punish a criminal, such as through lynching, only the courts have the authority to order capital punishment.”
In academia, authority is often associated with someone or some work that is definitive, respected, and found to be the most knowledgeable or accurate in a certain field. Authority is often correlated to the number of times the person or work is cited in other academic publications. Technorati, a popular blog ranking site assigns each blog an “Authority” rank based on the number of other web sites linking to that specific blog. Again, authority is given by others.
Webster’s defines authority as, “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior,” and also as “convincing force.”
How, then, does one gain authority? The following are three paths to gaining authority that apply regardless of career, position or geography:
Service – People will rarely allow you to have access into their life if you have not served them in some capacity. The most trusted professions in America happen to be the professions most associated with service–doctors, police officers, teachers, and military officers are among the highest ranking. It should come as no surprise that the most trusted professions are also rewarded with the most authority. The act of putting other people before yourself is widely preached and rarely practice, but the individuals, businesses and organizations that do this best reap the benefits.
Just think of the last time a business went the extra mile in serving you, what was your reaction? The most common reaction to service is greater trust. Howard Schultz has built Starbucks around the concept of serving his employees using measures such as stock options and benefits for employees working as little as 20 hours a week. As a result, he and the rest of the management team has gained authority in the lives of each Starbucks partner resulting in higher quality people working at Starbucks, low turnover rates, and widespread adoption of the companies values and culture. Starbucks is an excellent example of how service is a direct path to authority. The question is how much do you really have to offer others? All of us have something to give, but the more we can offer others the more authority we create.
Excellence – “Do you see those who are skilled in their work? They will serve before kings; they will not serve before officials of low rank,” – Proverbs 22:9 TNIV. One of the truly universal currencies at work today is excellence. Someone who is excellent at his profession will always be in high demand. Excellence is proof that authority is due, the evidence that one has knowledge, has mastered his skill or craft and can be trusted to execute. Excellence shuts the mouth of critics and gives a platform for one to exercise her authority.
It is possible to gain authority without excellence, but it will be nearly impossible to keep it. Who you know may many times get you in the door, but what you know will keep you there. Incompetence leads to distrust and a shrinking of one’s circle of influence. Excellence opens doors that would otherwise be shut. What makes our new globalized, flat world interesting is that through the rise of the internet, global communications and the cheapening of travel, geography has become less of a factor in regards to success and influence, while excellence has quickly become THE factor. No longer can one rely on the protection of trade unions, favorable geography or birth right to secure authority, if someone in India can program better than the kid in San Francisco the Indian will most likely get the job and the authority with which it comes. Excellence is a sure path to gaining authority and a must-have in maintaining authority.
Integrity – Authority is directly related to trust. Due to this it is incredibly important for one to possess integrity if he or she wishes to have influence. People will not allow liars or cheats access to their lives. Without integrity the prior two authority builders, service and excellence, are irrelevant. The ripple effects of a break in integrity are tremendous harming everyone connected to the person or situation where the the failure occurred. Integrity means more than just honesty, it means doing the right thing when no one is looking, understanding there’s no such thing as a secret. Integrity is the ability to consistently make the right decisions when faced with life’s moral crossroads.
All of us have met people that are continually looking to cut corners. Most of the time it is not simply one large lie or breach or integrity that is the cause for a breakdown, but rather a series of small, seemingly inconsequential choices made poorly over a long period of time. One of my favorite definitions of integrity is “wholeness” or “completeness.” Even the smallest break in integrity can destroy a life. People of great integrity command respect and will always have authority because their standard of living raises the bar for everyone around them. Integrity must be the foundation of any person or organization endeavoring to build authority.