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Sep 29, 2007

Authority and power

A certain meeting in the State’s capital made me think about power. How come people who are incompetent also inevitable feel the need to exercise authority? These two seems to be coming hand-in-hand. If you meet a bureaucrat, who begins a conversation with a not-so-subtle “who’s the boss” theater, -- be sure, whatever he is going to tell you is going to be poorly thought out, unorganized, and lacking rationale. This is true not only in management; teachers who suck at teaching will pay excessive attention to maintaining their treachery authority. They act preemptively; making sure everyone around knows who the emperor is, so the emperor’s nakedness will be ignored by the crowd. The less secure a person is about her competence, the more authoritarian she becomes.

Authority in general comes from weakness. The lavish medieval theater of authority reflected the incredible weakness of medieval rulers: they had no real economic or military power, so all they did was pretending to have authority. In modern democratic societies, government power stems from public consent and assumption of competence. Incompetence quickly erodes consent, and diminishes power. Hence the theatrics of authority make their come-back. Presidents suddenly start worrying about looking presidential when their failures become obvious. In our little neck of the woods, a state agency that butchered review process suddenly is keen at pointing out how the Law of the Land (capitalized) is behind their demands. If those to be reviewed come up with a better idea, it is even more threatening, because by definition, those in authority must be more competent than those underneath. What they do not understand is this: recognizing and supporting a good idea requires higher competence than developing it. Absorbing and supporting someone else’s better idea allows the persons of authority rightfully claim ownership over its results.

Worrying about authority too much actually makes one’s power weaker, because it destroys the foundation of modern authority – its claim for competence. Worrying about authority is self-defeating and counterproductive, in management, in teaching, and elsewhere.

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