Keith’s reflections on parental authority causes me to reflect on the conjunction of the unified, rarely disarticulated phrase “trust and confidence” with the two elements of authority.  Here’s Kent, in disguise, trying to get a job with Lear when the latter is being dispossessed of his power and, in the next scene, will face flatfooted insubordination.


… you have that in your countenance
which I would fain call master.


What’s that?

KENT Authority.

What is he talking about?  Most people would agree that a secretary telling a distinguished professor, “You don’t have the authority to send me out for coffee!” is speaking reasonable, clear, English and using the word correctly whether or not she’s right.  As it happens, the professor is “the world’s greatest authority on tropical butterflies,” also a meaningful, proper English utterance, and true. When the prof tells the butterflies in his lab to stop flapping and sit down, they sit immediately and await further instructions, right? When he gives a student a D for bad attendance, the grade sticks because of his authoritative knowledge of butterflies?  Mark Moore used to ask the profound pedagogical question, “what gives you the right to hold the chalk?”,  meaning not just whence comes your authority as a teacher, but what kind of authority is it? After all, the track coach can’t outrun any of his sprinters.

In every language in which the word occurs, AFAIK, authority has these two very distinct meanings, one having to do with power and the other with knowledge.  When I teach management, we spend a fair amount of time on the importance of being clear about which kind of authority is better wielded in different situations.  Occasionally a student points out that it’s important for a group to have ‘trust and confidence’ in its leadership.  This pair is a portmanteau of very different ideas that don’t always go together.  You trust your mother the architect for all sorts of things, because she will do her best to advance your interests (OK, including interests you don’t know you have), but you wouldn’t have her do your brain surgery.  Keith’s first pilot deserves confidence (probably)  but not trust; his second is the opposite.

Leadership can be viewed as changing the decision trees inside the heads of others who are choosing between doing A or B.  The important things about the A and B branches are two: the decisionmaker’s probabilities that the world is one of several ways it could be i,ii,iii…, and the outcomes he will receive if, for example, he does A and the world is ii.  Knowledge authority acts on the probabilities: when an engineer says “if you build it that way, it will collapse with a busload of schoolchildren on it,” he’s changing our probabilities about how strong the steel really is, or what forces the truss will experience, none of which he commands or ordains.   Power authority changes the outcomes directly: when the pharaoh said “drag those stones up to the top of the pyramid and you can have lunch; refuse and I’ll have you flogged” he was attaching outcomes that changed the relative attractiveness of the paths. (This is not the same as pointing out possible outcomes that were there already, but of which the decisionmaker was unaware.)

Knowledge and power are not Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and there’s no prima facie equivalence between them, nor balanced complementarity. Which is better? Of course there’s no universal answer, but my students find that using knowledge often makes people in organizations smarter, often smarter than the manager, and builds capacity for future challenges (even while they are grousing about not getting clear instructions) , while using power is gratifying to the ego and gets you out of the office by 5PM, but can leave a lot of value on the table.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

4 thoughts on “Authority”

  1. I was introduced to a framework for thinking about the concept of trust recently which I found helpful in sorting through the different things that people mean when they talk about “trust.” In brief:

    1) Competence: Do I trust that this person is capable of accomplishing what I need them to accomplish?
    2) Reliability: Do I trust that this person’s actions are sufficiently predictable and consistent with their words to rely on them?
    3) Empathy: Do I trust that this person understands what I need (and that I in turn understand them well enough to have a personal relationship)?
    4) Other-orientation: Do I trust that this person is focused on my needs and acting in my best interests?

    For your brain surgeon you care mostly about #1, the guy feeding your dog while you’re on vacation mostly #2, your spouse mostly #3 and your mom mostly #4. But that said, true trust requires some measure of all four, though the proportion you ask of people in different circumstances differs based on what you need from them.

    Us introvert types tend to “score” well with people on #1 and #2, but terribly on #3. Extroverts tend to score well with people on #3, poorly on #1 (often unfairly – we can’t believe that someone so personable actually knows what the hell they are talking about!) and middling on #2. #4 transcends personality though – its a matter of demonstrated character over time.

  2. I always thought authority was “official power”. Lear has a brilliant description of authority, after he has gone mad (quotation may not be exact!), contradicting Kent. His authority came from being a King. Once he gave up his Kingship, he became Nobody.

    Lear: Thou seest the farmer’s dog bark at a beggar, and the creature run from the cur?
    Gloucester: Aye
    Lear: There thou might’st behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.

    “Authority” in this exchange is the power granted to someone by virtue of status.

    In this view, the question is not whether Mitt Romney has authority, but if he deserves it.

  3. I read that word in King Lear as the descendant of the Latin “auctoritas”. When you have authority, people do what you say because what you think is important to lots of other people, so you can make good things or bad things happen. The classic anecdote is about Augustus: when an official displeased him one time too many, Augustus simply said, “he is no longer my friend.” The official’s life would have been so miserable after that, that he committed suicide.

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