Three Overlooked Essentials of Authority
"I'm not anti-authority. I'm anti unethical authority, anti abusive authority, and anti abuse of power. Those in authority should use their power to serve and protect the weak, disenfranchised, abused, forgotten, and lost."
On several occasions (or 25) it's been suggested to me, and sometime flat out told to me, that I have a problem with submitting to authority. I've always pushed back on this. Deep down I've always known it wasn't true.
My oldest son, Joshua (4), just played his very first soccer game last Saturday. There is no place in the world I would have rather been than on the sidelines cheering him on. It was great! However, I was a bit taken aback by the other teams coach. He reminded me of a drill sergeant commanding four year olds where to go what to do.
Keep in mind that at this level, there are no goalies and the coaches can be on the field. My assumption was that the boys and girls would go out on the field, kick the ball around, try to learn the rules, and have so much fun that they'll want to play again. As a parent I have no expectation of any mastery, execution, competition, or winning. I guess that's not everyone's expectation. At one point I think the other team had scored 12 or so straight goals and the coach wasn't letting up. In fact, I noticed on several occasions he actually stood in front of our goal like a goalkeeper would. I noticed that the children, sensing the presence of a large and loud man, would not get close enough to the goal to score. I admit, it bothered me a bit. They're just kids I thought, let them enjoy, let them have the excitement of scoring a goal. Oh well, I thought, I probably should get used to this if I plan to let my kids play sports.
After we packed up and started driving home I got to thinking. There was something about seeing this authority figure impact the play of these children and even my son, indirectly, that gave me clarity on something I'd never realized before.
The realization: "I don't have a problem with authority as a principal, but authority that is often found in practice. I have a problem with abuse of power!"
Sometimes abuse of power is intentional, most of the times its not. However, I think it's easy when one finds themselves in a position of authority to use that power in ways that are not always in the best interest of others. Good authority, in my opinion, is about leading others to a greater goal, providing structure, and creating an environment where individual feel safe enough to allow for the type of vulnerability required in both development and connection.
Authority and leadership are not the same thing.
I haven't been the "authority" very often. To the contrary, I've often been a subordinate who has been subject to authorities who are unable or unwilling to understand me, be respectful of my point of view, and provide psychological safety. There have been many times in my life where I felt forced to give up personal boundaries by authority figures to meet the greater good, whatever that happened to be, or to meet the needs of those in power at my expense.
I now take positions of authority very seriously whether in official title or not. It is my goal to be an authority figure who demonstrates understanding, respect, and safety for everyone who is ever under my care. Regardless of whether that be my children, clients, employees, or whomever; I never want to use a position of power to meet my needs.
Power is for serving those without it.
Authorities have been put in place to serve, not to be served.
"I'm not anti-authority. I'm anti-unethical authority, anti-abusive authority, and anti abuse of power. Those in authority should use their power to serve and protect the weak, disenfranchised, abused, forgotten, and lost."
Why is it like this?
I don't think many people have malevolent intentions. I think what often happens is that people find themselves in positions of authority who were once the subordinate who was taken advantage of or abused. This is understood in the Contextual Model of therapy as destructive entitlement (click this link to read an interview with the founder of Contextual Therapy). The idea is one of justification; it was done to me therefore I now have the right to do it to others. According to the Contextual Model, this cycle often continues from generation to generation.
In some ways, I think everyone looks to authorities for approval and validation (e.g. parents, teachers, bosses, coaches). In other ways, we're all authorities in some context and can use that power to validate those under our care.
Three Practical Ways to Demonstrate Understanding, Respect, and Safety
Give a sincere effort in understanding by summarizing your subordinates point of view (regardless of age or rank). Check with them to see if your summary is correct. If not, try and get a little closer. They'll appreciate the effort.
By doing this, you are demonstrating respect for the experience of your subordinate. When those in your care feel respected they will likely give respect back to you (regardless of age or rank).
Being understood and respected lead to a feeling psychological safety. When a person feels safe, they are less likely to resist your guidance and direction (regardless of age or rank).
Demonstrating these three things communicate that you care and that you're trustworthy. As the saying goes, "People don't care what you know until they know that you care." It's true.
A few questions to consider:
- Is it really anti-authority to be thoughtful about who and what we submit to?
- Is it really anti-authority to feel safe to say "no" when something goes against a deeply held personal value or ethic?
- Who or what do you submit to in action, not belief or statement?
- Do they or does it, have your best interest in mind?
- What kind of authority figure are you?
Regardless of your situation, I hope you will be the kind of authority figure you wanted or needed when you were once low on the totem pole.
Robert Dunn, MMFT