Wielding Authority

November 30, 2023

This could have been also titled "Evolving Authority". What I want to explore here is how our views of competent authority as adults is shaped by our experiences as children, how that shows up in adult life, and how we can benefit from a categorical reboot of the role of authority.

Authority as a Power Structure

Parents who lovingly wield their authority are rewarded with children who grow up with fewer injuries. This is because as adults, we have survived experiences that have taught us what to avoid, what to look out for, and how to stay safe. Our children have not had these learning experiences yet. As parents, we want to keep our children safe and will sometimes need to "lay down the law" in the interest of avoiding a trip to the emergency room.

Here's one example:

This is a case of loving authority -- parents emphatically answering the girl's request with "NO!" and holding her arm back to keep her away from the bear. The parents authority is shown as an unopposable force, using their superior physical strength and emotional authority over the child to keep her safe.

She likely will have had other experiences growing up where authority is applied forcefully for less good reasons, e.g. finishing the last bite of food on a plate "or else" or memorizing a list of state capitals to be quizzed on later.

In all cases, the adults are exerting their power over the children, for better or for worse. The parent-child authority relationship is built, necessarily, on a power dynamic. In some ways, it helps to ensure the continuation of the species through improved safety (was this a trait that was "selected for" in human evolution?). In less vital ways, it provides adults with a level of control of their situation which may or may not be healthy. The loop closes when one considers the childhood of those adults and perhaps this was modeled for them by their parents. Recursion!

Back to the point: For most children, their most poignant models of authority come from their experiences as children -- at home and at school.

As children progress through life, entering adulthood, perhaps they have an opportunity to be an authority. Whether that's a management position in a job, a leadership position in a club or something else, many young adults get to have their first experience as a leader.

This is usually quite a big step for people. Most are thrust into the position of authority without any training for the most important aspects of leadership. They're just expected to "be the boss", whatever that means. This shows a lack of mindfulness of the role of leadership in our culture, and for the most part we just revert to the model that we've known -- authority as a power structure, with those under the authority compelled to carry out the leader's wishes.

We have all felt this at work, where the boss just wants what the boss wants. Rational justification is not given, but commands are. This is a form of "othering" -- the ruler and the ruled, the parent and the parented. The othering is a necessary reinforcement of the power dynamic, since if the perception of this power structure is broken, or if the all is surely lost.

Outside of the clear need for a power dynamic to keep children safe, we have other options for how authority shows up in the whole of life.

Authority as a Support Structure

If we take a step back and look at authority from a rational perspective, focusing on our desired long-term outcomes as a society and as a species, I think we would come up with something dimensionally different than the power structure we all grew up with.

In a team of competent peers, it's easy to see how the rules can be different than those needed in raising young children. Rather than controlling the team from a position of fear (e.g., "That bear is SCARY!"), it's desirable for the leader to take a more supporting role, as a developer of talent and capability. Perhaps thinking of the role as more of a coach than a dictator helps to illustrate this.

In a structure like this, the leader's job is to deeply understand the capabilities and operations of their team members on an individual level, so that the leader can best position the individual for long-term success. The leader can serve as a conduit to other information in the organization, feeding it to the team as it benefits their overall mission. The leader should model the behaviors they want in their team, including humility and a willingness to pitch in and get their hands dirty when it's needed.

As a supporting coach figure, the leader can then become a force multiplier -- investing in team members' growth with an eye on future payoffs of capability and efficiency. This serves everyone in the system in a positive way. The competent leader is deep in the weeds of their team members' aspirations, helping them to develop and sharpen those aspirations and providing avenues for those aspirations to be realized.

When a person's work assignments resonate with their aspirations, magic happens. The best leaders know this and take the expressions of their employees seriously. They know the value of providing a comfortable, emotionally comfortable space to discuss aspirations with their team members, because they just want to know the truth of how best to position and support each member of the team.

Yes, sometimes things just need to get done, and a good leader will roll up their sleeves too and be there with their team in getting through whatever needs to get through to generate success. Life is a mix of fun and un-fun, and an excellent leader will tie the "must dos" back to the team members' aspirations to show that every experience is an opportunity for growth.

This is a "guided self-directed" model of authority, where individuals are significantly responsible for their chosen work placement, and leaders are there to coach, guide, and in rare cases direct their team members to successful outcomes.

Back to Parenting

Pivoting back to the domain of parenting, the question then comes up: Can we apply the philosophies of guided self-directed authority structures to the family? Perhaps we can we teach our kids that effective leadership is more like the limbs of a tree, supporting the beautiful leaves and flowers and positioning them for maximum sunlight and joy.

How can we do this as parents? By showing our kids that we're all just fellow humans in this soupy mess of life. That we're all struggling to understand our place in the world and how to interact with it and be happy. We can ask our kids more questions to learn more about them. We can share more of our own selves, opening up about our struggles or anxieties. This will show our kids that these feelings are normal, and that people who love one another can talk about them together.

This is a vulnerable position, opening up like this. But it demonstrates that vulnerability is a sign of deep trust, and trust is of the pillars of love. Parents can model love to their kids through openness. This in turn will teach our kids the importance of openness in loving relationships, allowing them to connect with future spouses or partners more deeply. By modeling that deep trust, we make it ok to not be ok. That is so important.

As our kids get older and more capable, we can bring more of this philosophy into the mix. By connecting with our teens as young adults, as peers, as fellow humans, perhaps we can bring more peace and joy to everyone's experiences.

Teens naturally rebel against their parents' authority. That's a normal part of the necessary separation process for them to launch their own independent adulthoods. If we can embrace this and change the authority structure, perhaps there is more opportunity for understanding and growth on both sides of the teen-parent relationship. Are those moments of rebellion clues for us to change our leadership approach?


I often see parallels between leading at work and leading at home. Of course we shouldn't treat our employees as our children, but there is a commonality of love, compassion, understanding, and, most of all, support in both domains that leads to the best outcomes.

By taking a more long-term view in how we apply authority, we will naturally change our approach to something dimensionally different. This alternative is driven by embracing the variety of skills and motivations of our team/family, helping to position individuals for their own growth and for the success of the team/family. This difference has unbounded benefits for us as individuals and as a society.