18 Different Types of Authority

Authority concept where a man stands out from the crowd.

Part of living in a society means there are rules that need to be followed. The presence of rules, in turn, mean there are authority figures who see to it that these rules are followed or otherwise a corrective action will be in order.

A world without rules and authority figures may seem utopian for a moment, but their absence can also mean a breakdown of order and many valuable things we take for granted such as peace, security, and freedom.

In a 1960s experiment, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of obedience experiments that found people willing to go to great lengths to obey an authority figure. The presence of an authority figure also made compliance much easier.

Learn more about how authority affects our lives by getting to know the different types of authority.

Academic Authority

An open book with a judge's black gavel on top flanked by a trio of stacked hardbound books on wooden desk in a library.

This isn’t a type of authority found in teachers and college professors. The term merely refers to motivating those under you by providing good theoretical knowledge of the subject matter. It usually involves a good textbook learning of the material concerned, which means that the person in charge has studied it and knows it intimately.

There is the possibility that this “book” knowledge might conflict with what happens in real-life examples of certain situations, which is the downside to this type of authority. In addition, the person doesn’t have to be an expert in the material; it only requires enough knowledge that that person is able to guide and administer the right advice and assistance to subordinates.

Academic authority is possessed by someone who knows the subject and shares it with others who are usually beneath him or her on the corporate ladder so that the project they are all working on with being a success.

Charismatic Authority

A businessman in suit and red cape has his hands folded across his chest as he faces the city skyline with reflections of employees working at the building.

Also known as charismatic leadership or charismatic domination, this is a type of authority that is based on the character of a certain individual, not necessarily that person’s expertise or knowledge. A person with exemplary character or heroism exudes charismatic authority.

These people are often considered to be a step above most other people, even if that perception is incorrect. In fact, when it comes right down to it, charismatic people can be good or evil because even Adolph Hitler was considered to be charismatic by a lot of people.

Some experts even consider narcissism to be a significant trait among people who enjoy this type of authority. Even more interesting is the fact that organizations with people in charge who have charismatic authority often dissolve if that leader leaves the organization because often that person’s charisma is the only reason he or she was put into that specific position.

Examples of various types of authority can be seen in this chart.

Expert Authority

Smiling medical professionals in a V-formation.

Expert authority is just like the name sounds, an expert on a certain subject area. A great example is when people hire “experts” to testify in court on a certain subject, and they can be experts on everything from racial bias to juror personalities.

These authorities tend to be experts and specialize in one area and one area only, which is why their opinions on these subject matters are so valuable. These people have the knowledge and expertise to influence others, which makes them crucial in certain trials.

Doctors are experts in the medical field, while lawyers are experts in a host of legal matters. These people aren’t necessarily smarter than the average person, they just know more about a particular area than other people do.

There are three main characteristics of expert authorities: they understand the subject matter thoroughly because they have studied it, they know how the subject actually works, and they have an intense interest in the subject. All three of these factors combine to make these people true experts in a certain area.

Other characteristics of someone who has expert authority can be found here.

Founder Authority

Blocks of letters on wooden background form the word

This type of authority is obvious; it is authority from a founding member of an organization, and, as such, this person has the motivation, devotion, and the expertise to be in charge of an organization or membership, even if this person isn’t the only one so involved.

Founding members usually have very well-defined roles, including operations, team management, and product development, among others, and because they are one of the founders of the organization, they have a deep interest in how that organization operates on a day-to-day basis.

Founders exude this type of authority not only because of their knowledge and past experience, but also because of their devotion, dedication, and their intense desire to see the organization succeed. In short, founders make sure that the internal operations of the organization are working properly day in and day out, and they exude this authority not only over the employees but also over other leaders within the organization.

A team of board of directors huddle over a meeting with papers, pens, glasses, and mineral bottles on wooden desk.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a lawyer, although you can be one and have this type of authority. It merely means that you use your official position or status to exert your authority. It isn’t that you’ve been assigned a position of authority; it’s that you’re using your position, which is usually a very high one, to exert your authority.

It’s the status and power that you feel that allows you to think that you have the right to hold authority over other people. Granted, it is not necessarily a bad thing because it can help you hold other leaders within the company accountable just like you’re holding yourself accountable. However, the downside is that it can make you feel disconnected from the day-to-day goings-on at your company.

Examples of this type of authority can include boards of directors, managers, general partners, and even members of a limited-liability corporation. In essence, many people in supervisory or managerial roles can execute legal-governing authority over others.

Organizational-Position Authority

A man has his left hand resting on the white desk as he leans over and gesticulates with the right hand holding a pen and looking toward one of the employees listening to him.

This type of authority is seen in people who are put in charge of major projects where they work. It usually refers to a specific project, which means that once the project is complete, that manager or supervisor may lose the organization-position authority intact at the beginning of the project.

Most organizations have ongoing projects that are crucial to the success of their business, and once a person is put in charge of one of those projects, that person gains an organizational-position authority over others.

People with this type of authority can feel stressed or even unable to handle the load they’ve been given, and, because they are in a position of authority, they may be hesitant to ask others for help. Besides this negative aspect, this type of authority is a good one to have.

Organizational-position authority can instill a lot of self-confidence and pride in people, in part because if they weren’t well-qualified for the responsibility, they wouldn’t have been entrusted with it in the first place.

Ownership Authority

A man in suit has his left hand folded and resting on the white desk while the other hand has his palms up with a doodle of four buildings.

This type of authority belongs to people who own a company or organization, and, because of this ownership, they make decisions for the entire organization. Sports teams and franchises are owners, and sometimes they are absent owners and not involved in every single day-to-day activity.

However, their organizational skills have to be second-to-none because their decisions affect everyone from top to bottom. They earn this type of authority merely by the fact that they are the owner of a company, and, much like people who have voting authority, people with ownership authority can cause a lot of damage if they make the wrong decision because each and every decision they make inadvertently affects everyone else within the organization.

In fact, even absent owners have to be careful with their decisions, which is why people in these types of positions need to have a good head on their shoulders and make the right decisions at all times.

Prophetic Authority

Illustration of Moses as he commands the Red Sea to part.

Much like authority for spiritual leaders, this type of authority is spiritual in nature, but it specifically applies to people whose gifts include teaching and creating visions that are rooted in scripture. These people consider themselves to be modern-day prophets, but even though they feel they have prophetic abilities, they still take seriously their studies of the scriptures.

This is a specific type of authority that is not found very often, but both the prophet and his or her followers take it very seriously. There are also ways that people in this position can increase the power of their gifts, and their main personality trait seems to be the fact that they are not shy about what they do best. Prophetic authority usually comes from people who are bold and unashamed of their beliefs, and therefore other people respect that authority.

More details on how people with this type of authority can improve their skills and abilities can be found here.

Punitive Authority

A soccer referee wearing a green polo shirt blows on his whistle and raises a red card in front of him with the packed stadium as the background.

Punitive authority comes from knowing that you have the ability to punish someone if that person does something wrong, but it is not necessarily an evil or bad thing. A referee at a football game can exert punitive authority over the players and, in fact, does so whenever a yellow flag is thrown.

Just the fact that the players know that the referees have this capability makes them respectful of their authority both before and during the game. Another example would be a judge at a hearing or a trial.

The defendants always know that the judge’s sentence can be light or extreme, which is why most of them act accordingly. All people who have the capability and the legal right to enact any type of punishment on someone can be considered to have punitive authority over that person.

A man in suit stands in front of two microphones on a podium with the flag of the USA blurred on the background.

Also known as a bureaucratic authority or legal domination, rational-legal authority is a term used a lot in sociology and describes a leadership style that is based on rationality and bureaucracy. In other words, a legal responsibility defines their authority.

The President of The United States is a perfect example of rational-legal authority because people elect him, and then he has power or authority over them. There is a certain amount of legality and bureaucracy included in the process of giving this person power because people elect a certain person and then give that person certain powers, which are set in stone, so to speak.

In a democracy or republic, most people with this type of authority are elected to that position of responsibility, and some of those people include governors, mayors, council members, and judges, basically anyone who is elected and then receives a certain amount of power over the electors.

Relational Authority

A team of multi-ethnic employees huddles at a table as they stare down at a large white paper with scribbles.

People within certain groups are considered to be interrelated because each person’s actions can affect the entire group. This is especially true for businesses and large corporations because each person is connected somehow to all other employees. Because of these relationships, employees, and managers, both can be considered to have relational authority.

People that work together have to forgive others’ mistakes, work together to help one another out, and most of all, stick together so that the job gets done. Indeed, this is the only way to ensure that the organization is a success, and, if the organization fails, so will the people who work there. People are social creatures by nature, and nowhere is it more obvious that people need other people than within a corporation or commercial business.

Results Authority

Back view of a man wearing long sleeves with his hands on his waist as he looks up at a large digital screen of charts.

When you consider yourself to have results authority, you have already proven yourself to be the absolute best at achieving personal and business-related results on a regular basis, usually for a very long time. If you’ve been in charge of dozens of projects and every one of those projects has been a smashing success, you have results authority.

Even better, people know this, and they come to you regularly and put you in charge of other projects so that they, too, can be successful. People who have this type of authority can be individuals or business people because even individuals can be put in charge of projects that turn out great, whether that be in their church, within the organization that they volunteer for, or even numerous personal projects that other family members notice. If you have produced results in the past, it is likely you will do so again, and this is why people consider you an authority.

Reverent Authority

Rear view of a blonde female counselor in white long sleeves tapping the young woman's shoulder to her right as family members look her.

This is an authority that can win people over because of your approach to people and your manner and behavior towards people. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert on the subject or have studied it, and, in fact, many people are not experts in a particular area when they present reverent authority over others. These people tend to have a great personality, but this type of authority involves more than that.

Your care of and love for people may be shown in everything that you do, and, as such, others will consider you an authoritative figure. Because of your personality, people automatically trust you because they perceive you as ethical, honest, and trustworthy.

Because of the traits needed to exert reverent authority, this type of authority is earned, not given, and there are few if any, disadvantages to this. People who are professional counselors and therapists usually have this type of authority, because it is an authority that is based solidly on some type of relationship.

People with reverent authority traits can be individuals, friends, or professionals, but all of them have the type of personality that makes you feel that you can trust them, no matter what.

Reward Authority

Smiling female teacher stands in front of the classroom and holds a large open notebook on one hand as she points to one of the students raising their hands.

The most common type of reward authority is noticed in people who are teaching professionals. Reward authorities have the power to give and take various types of rewards, and these rewards can be something tangible or something intangible. If you are in a position where you can give or take away rewards to either reward or punish someone, you have a position of reward authority.

It is not always a professional, however, because parents also have this type of authority. Every day, both parents and teachers decide who gets a reward given to them and which people get it taken away.

This reward-and-punishment system describes a major characteristic of someone who has reward authority over other human beings. This is not to say that this type of authority shouldn’t be taken seriously; in the case of the teacher-student relationship, it should definitely be taken seriously by both sides.

However, a person doesn’t have to be an expert in anything or have any type of knowledge to exert reward authority over others; all that’s needed is to know how to work the reward-and-punishment system.

Spiritual Leadership Authority

Closeup of a bishop in gilded robe carrying a golden cross on one hand and an open Bible on the other.

Like its name implies, spiritual leadership authority is specifically assigned to members of the clergy, and its number-one purpose is to equip laypeople with the ability to minister to others. Contrary to what many people think, church and synagogue preachers and deacons have a tremendous amount of responsibility because they are usually responsible for hundreds or even thousands of church members.

In many areas of the world, people take their religion very seriously, and they rely on their spiritual leaders to guide them in the right direction. Preachers don’t just work on the days they preach sermons; most of them work every day counseling people, encouraging people, and teaching people how to get closer to their god. Because of this, they have to know the scriptures inside and out, and they have to be there whenever their parishioners need them.

There is only one disadvantage to this type of authority, although it rarely happens, and that is when people with this authority assume that it applies to matters outside of the religious institution. When you’re a minister or preacher, your authority usually only applies when you’re in the church or synagogue, as this is the only place where that authority gets the respect it deserves.

Tenured Authority

A smiling scientist wearing a blue colored uniform and green rubber gloves looks straight ahead as he sits in front of his desk with left hand on top of the other resting on the desk.

Tenured authority comes from someone who has a great idea of what may or may not work depending on their past experiences, and since most of these people tend to be in one career for a very long time, that expertise can usually be relied on to discover the right thing to do.

A long-time employee, even one not in a supervisory position, can have a type of tenured authority just because of the length of time spent at the company. If you’re working somewhere and wish to determine whether XYZ activity will increase your bottom line or increase your customer base, a person with tenured authority may be able to help.

Of course, past experiences don’t tell you everything, so a person who is considered to have tenured authority must also look at what is currently working so that a more accurate picture can present itself. Staying with a company for a long time doesn’t guarantee your authority will be relied on by others in every situation, but it does increase the odds that other people will take you seriously.

Traditional Authority

Light shining on a golden crown that's resting on a wooden surface.

Traditional authority is the authority given to someone due to custom or tradition. When households, cities, or even countries do things a certain way because that’s the way “it has always been done,” this is an example of traditional authority. Examples can include:

  • Patriarchy: this is a form of authority in which there is a “master” who dominates over a household or entity; it is often based on the rules of inheritance and the people or family members underneath him respect his authority and obey him based on traditional beliefs.
  • Patrimonialism: this form of authority grants that authority to other members of the household or governmental entity; the leader assigns important tasks and duties to these people and they, in turn, obey them but also work towards a common goal.

Examples of traditional authority include kings, sultans, emperors, the male head of a household, and others. Monarchies, oligarchies, theocracies, and some autocracies are good examples of entities that are headed by someone with traditional authority, and if you look hard enough you can find other examples as well.

Voting Authority

A man in suit casting his ballot in the voting box.

This term doesn’t refer to someone who is literally casting a vote for someone or something. Instead, this is a person who is entrusted with the responsibility of making a final decision on something. If you are the chairman of the board, you often make these types of decisions, and this qualifies you to have voting authority. Furthermore, people know you have this responsibility, and they respect you for it.

You are trusted to make well-informed decisions that affect other people’s lives, so it is a very big responsibility, and, if you make the wrong decision, it can mean devastation for a lot of people. You can block progress and even cause people to get laid-off or fired, so your decisions always have consequences. Because of this, many people steer clear of this type of authority, and its importance is never to be underestimated.

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