Authority v. Power

Authority is the right to act

Power is the ability to act.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t a “definitions” rant.  Technically you can use either word to mean either thing.  Authority, broadly defined, means “the power or right to give orders,” and power, broadly defined, can subsume authority. However, the term authority doesn’t usually carry the implicit assumption of sufficient force, whereas power always does.

Still, if you don’t like these words, pick your own.  This isn’t about the correct definition of words, but about two concepts that need different words to define them, so I’m going to use the words and focus on the difference in concept.  I think it’s often easier to understand concepts about power using examples from the wider world:

Authority is the right to act – All around the world, we see situations where people have authority, but not power. For example, on July 26, 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, integrating the United States Armed Forces. When Bill Clinton came into office, many individuals wanted him to use a similar Executive Order to integrate gays into the United States Armed Forces. There was no question that Clinton had the authority to do so. He lacked the power – there was no strong feeling that the military would fully comply, or that Clinton could survive the backlash without sinking his entire agenda, therefore on February 28, 1994 the compromise “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was enacted.

Around the world many heads of state have Authority granted by Constitutions, which they are unable to enforce.

Power is the ability to act – Around the world, many organizations, entities, or people exercise power without any authority. For example, in July 2013, Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed the President Mohamed Morsi, and suspended the new constitution. El-Sisi had no legitimate authority (other than, arguably, tradition), but his power has remained indisputable, such that most nations have acknowledged the military coup, legitimizing his actions.

Power Exchange

In power exchange, we see people who get confused about the difference between authority and power.  The point of a power exchange is usually that one partner acts as an executive and the other does not.  As we discussed in a previous post, there is an assumption in many “normal” relationships that executive authority is shared, and that is often not the case.

I’ve taken to using the term “executive partner” as a description for the “top” in a power exchange.  I use the term in the full sense of an executive being the individual with “authority and responsibility,” not the military sense of an XO who is charged with carrying out a specific set of duties, because I’m a Washingtonian not a military brat.  (Again, as long as you know my meaning, you can come up with a different word if that one doesn’t suit.)

We see many permutations where the difference between authority and power creates issues.  One form is a sort of hypercontrol where the executive partner holds all the cards and attempts to micromanage everything in the relationship.  It is possible for this to work, and for some people it does, usually where the non-executive partner has a relatively simple, static life and craves very strong control.  More often hypercontrol is driven by a doctrinaire belief that “Master holds all the cards.”  It can be facilitated by an executive who is hypercontrolling, or by a a non-executive partner who is very afraid of responsibility.  For every occasion that it works, there are more where it creates a set of illusions that conceal co-dependence and passive-aggression.

Advice for these issues frequently runs towards encouraging the non-executive partner towards a zen acceptance of the surrender of authority.  While this can work, it’s worth noting that human beings have a deep-seated need to exercise control over our environments.  There’s some evidence that losing control can be bad for our health.*  Often someone who fears their life is out of control tried to re-establish control by turning the keys to that life over to another person through Power Exchange. While the idea may be good, someone whose mental routines and processes make them unable to control their own life may use those same routines and processes to subvert attempts of someone else to control them, even if a wise part of them wants to accept that person’s control.

Sometimes this does not work too badly.  In fact, sometimes the non-executive partner merely wanted to feel that “someone else is in charge” but acts as the executive partner.  We’ve all seen those comical power exchanges where a “Master” was free to order a “slave” to do exactly what the slave wanted to do, including beating the slave any time the slave wanted, exactly the way the slave liked. If the situation works, we won’t criticize it, but we feel it is healthier if the theoretical lines of authority, and the Executive partner needs to understand that control does not emanate magically from authority.   Being told “you are the Master, you are in charge” does not make them the one in charge.

Nothing erodes authority like its exercise in the absence of power, and power emanates from understanding. A third world President who has the Constitutional power to dismiss the most powerful General in the Army may still govern in wielding the power he does have wisely, and cooperating with the army in tacit acknowledgement that he lacks the power to control it.  When he challenges the General by firing him, he invites exposure and ridicule, and may find power he previously wielded, such as control of the Police, slipping from his grasp.

It is not enough for one person to say “I am the boss of you” and another to say “yes you are the boss of me.”  The executive needs to understand that person well enough to know what motivates them, what they are and are not capable of, and how to get them to do it.  For an exaggerated example, I can have full authority over someone, but if I tell them “fly to the moon” they can’t do it.  The problem is that most tasks aren’t as obviously difficult or impossible as “fly to the moon.”  Something as simple as “clean the kitchen” may, on a given day, require more emotional or even physical energy than is available.  If the executive doesn’t understand that, they may find themselves with authority, but without power.

Within our personal relationships it may be best not to claim authority we do not have the power to support, but we certainly should not attempt to exercise it.   The key to a good negotiated relationship is to be realistic about the limits of Authority, and draw them to correspond to the limits of Power.


* Langer and Rodin (1977), Schulz and Hanusa (1978).