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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

What Is “Good Enough” Authority?

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

Marisa Guerin, PhD – March 25, 2018

Let me switch the word on you right away – instead of “authority” per se, let me ask you to think about “authorization”. It’s the dynamic, active, enacted version of the concept. That’s important, because while a certain kind of authority can exist on paper (disembodied) it has to be brought to life for it to make any contribution to an organization. It’s a communal dynamic that all members can impact. I’ll explain below the sources that feed a “good-enough” level of authorization so that all members of an organization are appropriately empowered, including its leaders. The result, when all is working properly, is authority as service.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. I can’t count the number of times I have faced a frown when the idea of authority comes up in client conversations, especially in value-based and religious organizations. It’s got a bad name for many people, and that’s understandable. Every last one of us was once a child, or a student, or a young person under the authority of an adult who may or may not have been responsible in its use; and even if they were, it was our job as adolescents to resent it!

In addition, many religious women and men remember a time when congregational authority was wielded in ways that were downright authoritarian -- in effect running roughshod over the needs or contributions of those under it, even if the intent was sincere. As a result, for many the idea of authority has been consigned to the waste bin along with hierarchy, bureaucracy, male-or-clergy-domination, spirit-less corporate processes, etc. So, I understand the reaction the word evokes.

Nonetheless, I have been on a years-long quest in my consulting work to rehabilitate the notion of authority. Why? Because of its service to collective human life and action – as long as it is understood with subtlety, with humility, and as a dynamic human phenomenon that is enacted by the people in the system.

Here’s the idea in brief: Good-enough authorization can be understood as the result of three contributing elements: formal role authority, respected authority, and inner authority.

Let me explain each, as well as indicating how the lack of any of them will compromise good-enough authorization. (These ideas are not original with me; I am basing this short review on the classical distinctions made by Anton Obholzer and Vega Roberts in “The Unconscious at Work”, 1994, Routledge Press.)

(1) The first source of authorization comes from the formal authority that is inherent in organizational roles and structures, defined by the documents of incorporation or its long-standing traditions. It represents the institutionally-authorized responsibilities and rights to make certain decisions that are binding on others in the system in the pursuit of its primary task. This kind of formal authority exists on behalf of the mission of the organization, not as a personal power base.

Here’s the fascinating thing: every role in a system has its appropriate level of authority. No matter how strategic or how minor the role is, everyone who is a member of a company, a nonprofit, a club, a religious congregation has some level of authority appropriate to their role and obligations, even if it is the role of “member”. Healthy organizations have leaders and followers who are all mobilizing their appropriate scope of authority to get the mission done.

Systems without appropriate formal authority roles face a significant probability of ineffective action or internal confusion and conflict. For example, if an institution assigns final authority to a team or a group without investing it in a single person’s role, or assigns authority to a role that has very limited rights to act, the organization will be hampered under conditions of crisis or conflict, and good-enough authorization may not be available.

(2) The second basis for authorization is created when members and stakeholders of an organization act in a way that respects and supports the legitimate authority of the people who have formal authority roles. Ordinarily, the act of joining an organization implies the “delegation” of some of the individual’s own personal authority to the roles that operate in that system, usually with the option to speak up (voice), to create alternatives (act), or to leave (exit) if they do not agree with how the system is operating.

This source of authorization – respect for authority – is not a given. In some organizations and cultures, there is ambivalence or perhaps a history of disrespect for formal authority. And sometimes, it may be that members respect the legitimate office of a person in authority, but do not respect the values or competence of the person holding the role. (I believe this is happening in US civil society at present.) In either case, this withholding of voluntarily-offered respect for formal authority results in damaged or incomplete authorization. It compromises the ability of those in legitimate authority to carry out their duties effectively.

(3) The third basis for authorization comes from within the person holding a role of authority. Is he or she willing to accept the risks and the obligations invested in their role? Do they step up to their assigned place in the organization with courage and desire to give it their best, despite the difficult or lonely moments? Perfect competence is never possible, so that’s not the standard. What matters is that others experience the genuine commitment of the one holding authority to fulfill their responsibilities as faithfully as possible.

In some situations, individuals may feel overwhelmed and uncertain in the face of the authority invested in their position – and others can see when they avoid the responsibilities that belong to them. If the person in authority does not step willingly into their role, others who are interdependent with them will also be unable to function well. My colleague P.S. once described an organization as a jigsaw puzzle – if your piece shrinks back from its proper borders, it won’t hold the adjoining pieces reliably in their intended place.

Alternatively, some individuals in authority may feel excessively empowered, going well beyond their legitimate scope and trampling on the rightful roles of others. In either of these situations -- abdication or grandiosity -- the authorization from within the person is not helping to sustain good-enough authority.

That’s the model: three energies feed the achievement of “good enough authorization” – formal authority, respected authority, inner authority. (I'll leave it to another time to explore if and how disrupted authorization can be "mended.")

So what can an organizational or congregational leader look forward to, as a result of this dynamic of good-enough authorization? Truthfully, it grays your hair! The ultimate accountability of authorized leaders is legal, psychological, strategic, communal. It can and should be shared when possible -- but it cannot be given away and is always operative as long as one is in authority. It is a weight and a privilege, sometimes costly, sometimes immensely rewarding.

Thankfully, leaders can tap the well of courage from both religious and secular sources:

The Hebrew scriptures contain the inspiring image of Aaron and Hur helping Moses to hold up his hands to God so that the Israelites might prevail in battle.

Catholic religious communities trust the concept of “grace of office," God’s unfailing presence sustaining those who accept election to leadership as service for the common good.

And I have been fascinated by the perspective of R. Heifetz and M. Linsky (“Leadership on the Line” Harvard Business Review Press 2002). In their chapter on "sacred heart" they are speaking to leaders of business corporations and governments when they write: “Why lead? For love…with an 'open heart' … even if vulnerable and attacked, betrayed or abandoned … yet willing to stay open and committed.” It's simply an extraordinary invitation to take up leadership authority from the core of one's being, as service to the people and the enterprise being led.

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