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Superheroes and Supervillains: Command and Authority Power

Command and authority power result in speedy compliance, clear direction, and action. Using the “do it because I said so” approach rarely requires discussion or heated debate.

However, the “salute and execute” approach can be very helpful. During a crisis, the use of command power saves lives and organizes action. In the case of Hurricane Sandy or another critical safety issue, the use of command is a natural, effective, and reasonable approach.

Moviemakers create our superheroes. From Iron Man to Superman or Spiderman, they give directives to help others. We also associate command power with movie villains, from Darth Vader to the Godfather. In the Lord of the Rings, the search for the one ring of power pitted the good Hobbit Frodo again the lidless eye, Lord Sauron. Their dictates and motivation stem from greed and ego.

Command power: decisiveness, direction, and clear expectations

Despite a negative reputation, command power can aid others, create positive outcomes, and direct needed resources to the most critical problems. Medical triage might be one example. Doctors yell assessments about who should be treated first.  The other medical staff follow their directions and save lives.

While events like the 2009 crash of US Air 1549 happily do not happen as often as medical triage, it highlights again the benefits of command power. When the geese hit the engines shortly after take-off, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his disabled plane safely on the Hudson River. His decisive actions saved 155 lives.

In the corporate world, command power can provide clear goals and initiatives, create standards, align energies, and ensure high levels of performance.

There is a downside to using command power when the situation does not warrant it. This impersonal approach can create passivity, low levels of risk taking, and withholding information. It can also breed fear and crush personal motivation.

Authority power: clarity and unity vs. bureaucracy

Organizations grant authority power by title, position, and office space. Pay and perks, including furnishings, are metered out by position and title. In some organizations people of a specific rank prefer to speak only to those of an equal rank or higher.

The popular series Downton Abbey lays out the hierarchy not only upstairs but also downstairs. The “this is the way it is to be” approach clarifies the chain of command and responsibilities without regard to personality or personal connections.

With military, police, fire and medical staff, uniforms are a part of their authority. But even those without a uniform feel the role they play when they accept a title. Each title – professor, board chairperson, or elected mayor – has a role to play. Each recognizes the duties and obligations that accompany a position.

Organizations tend to use authority power to ensure appropriate decision review, set a direction or goal, or create unified action for goal achievement. However, authority power can become a morass. In one organization, there were seven signatures up the chain of command required to hire a security guard. Other war stories about approving travel reimbursement or multiple rejections of key decisions due to the submission of an improper form become part of one organization’s lore. It also creates a cumbersome bureaucracy that creates barriers to success.

The election of Pope Francis offers interesting insight into authority power. The pope has infallible power and substantial public and private obligations. In the first month after his election, there are signs that he will break from some traditions and practices as he sets a model of humility and service. It may be that a pope can serve just as well without wearing red shoes.

When those in authority rely on authority all the time, they are playing a dangerous game. The trump card of authority has its limits. It cannot produce commitment, loyalty, or develop future leaders.

To use power effectively it must match the situation. While it might be tempting to rely on one or two power levers, all seven must be in your tool kit. What are the signals you observe that tell you when to use which of the power levers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.