Back in the mid-’90s, when I was writing for an alternative newsweekly, the features team was occasionally given a summer gang project called “How To.” Each of us were tasked with writing a piece explaining, somewhat obviously enough, how to do something at which we were (nominally) experienced and knowledgeable. Being a quirky and contrarian crew, most of us chose to explain how to do things that were of a marginal degree of usefulness to our readers, producing articles that were probably intended to be entertaining (to the authors, anyway, if not the readers) more than they were educational.
Over the course of a few years, I explained How To Write A Record Review, How To Get a Grant, How To Keep a Secret, How To Talk To a Sleeping Rock Star, and How To Be An Expert. The grant-writing one was nominally useful, objectively speaking, if you were a fundraising professional, and the record review one has long been used by a journalism professor in Texas as part of her syllabus, so I suppose that one was legitimately of some value, too. The Sleeping Rock Star one was me making lemonade out of lemons after I was given a “phoner” appointment to interview then-trending singer-songwriter Abra Moore (who was asleep when I called her), and the secrets one was a result of me leading a weird double life where I was a music critic by night and a contracting officer for a highly classified military program by day.
Of those five pieces, How To Be An Expert was the one that hewed most meaningfully to my own real experiences and beliefs, and I have returned to or referenced it regularly over the past 25+ years as a basic operating tenet in my professional life. It stems from some of the best professional advice I was ever given, very early in my post-college career, after a simple conversation with a supervisor/mentor that went like this:
“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”
I asked the obvious question: “An expert in what, sir?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable.”
I used the word “expert” in that article, because that’s what my boss said, but I just as easily could have used the word “authority,” because that’s the gist of what he was communicating to me: if people perceive you as an authority on any particular subject, then you are useful to them, and you’ll always have a place in the organization, so long as you maintain your position as the organization’s authority of record on that particular topic, or maybe on a variety of topics, if you’re really good at exploiting this concept.
When I first started contemplating this month’s Credidero article, this “be an expert” narrative sat the center of my reflections on “authority.” I’ve spent most of my professional career in positions where I’ve been held up as an (or even the) authority on an evolving and branching stream of topics, as my work has taken me through a somewhat dizzying array of professional disciplines. I am self-aware enough, though, to know that in each and every case where I’ve been accepted as an authority on a particular topic, it was very much an act of me claiming that role, more than it was an act of others bestowing it on me — because if you say something long enough, often enough, and confidently enough, then it becomes reality, or at least is perceived as reality, and there’s really no difference between those outcomes.
My skills at self-marketing have always played into this paradigm, on top of the cultural cues and biases that benefit me by virtue of who I am and what I look like: a tall, white, older male with a degree from a “big name” college, who’s a glib speaker and solid writer, and with the ability to quickly process, retain and regurgitate a dazzling stream of facts and opinions. As such, most people are culturally conditioned to accept whatever I write, say, or do, if I offer my words of expertise confidently and with, yes, authority. There have been many times in my career when I have not been the most-trained, or most-knowledgeable, or most-experienced person in a given room or sphere on a specific topic, but people have still turned to me as “the authority,” simply because I’ve carried and presented myself as such more effectively than those around me, using the cultural privileges that are bestowed upon people like me as part and parcel of our society.
Is that fair? No, not really. But I have used it to my advantage anyway, and (more importantly, I think) to the advantage of my employers and their causes. I do not believe that I have ever used perceptions of my own authority for negative or negligent purposes, or to advance a crooked or conflicted agenda, or to denigrate, demean or disempower others who might, in fact, have more expertise than I do. I’m good at sharing credit when it’s due and when I can. That ability to advance the causes of my organizations in an authoritative way that makes people feel like they are invested in and connected to those causes is high among the traits that I believe have most contributed to my professional success over the years.
While I may claim to be an authority or an expert earlier and more forcefully than others might under similar circumstances, I also believe that I have managed those positions in ways where most people are willing to accept and reflect that authority back at me, confident that I will use it wisely, even if it is still nascent. And I say “most people” most purposefully, because I know that there are certainly a subset of my work colleagues over the years who just thought that I was a really good bullshit artist. That’s okay, I guess. I probably was. And probably still am. It’s hard to tell the difference between being a doctor and playing the role of a doctor on television sometimes, as long as you’re not performing brain surgery. I know my limits.
The word “authority” has several subtle definitional aspects to it, and I’ve only been focusing thus far on one of them: “the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.” This form involves being an authority (where I am the subject noun) on a given subject, which is somewhat different from having authority, where the subject noun is a standalone external right, and not me personally. That form of authority is defined as: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” When it comes to that form, there’s no “be an expert” bullshit or cultural bias at play, because you either have it, or you do not, typically as a result of your position within an organization.
As the CEO of a variety of nonprofits over the years, I’ve had all sorts of authority when it comes to this second definition of the term. I have had the ability to negotiate and sign contracts, take out loans, pay bills, sign checks, hire people, fire people, award grants, buy things, sell things, and a myriad of other rights that are integral and essential to the positions I’ve held. In the nonprofit sector, the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the corporation resides in the board of directors, who are also tasked with governance and with hiring and supervising their chief executive. After that, it falls on the chief executive to manage the organization within the mission and vision established by the board of directors and ideally embodied in a strategic plan. That means I’ve had a lot of latitude to do what I thought was the right thing to do for each of my organizations, and I had the authority to implement whatever ethical and legal tactics I deemed best to getting the job done effectively and efficiently.
My understanding and living of this form of authority is also highly influenced by some of my early professional training, in this case while still at the Naval Academy, where we learned the differences and distinctions between authority, responsibility, and accountability as part of the Leadership and Management Education and Training (LMET) curriculum. At the simplest level, authority is the ability to make a decision, responsibility is the job we are tasked to do, and accountability is the way in which we answer for the work we’ve done. The balance between these three factors has an immense impact on how effectively one can function in the work environment.
For example, if an employee has a high level of responsibility, but little authority, then he or she will likely be heavily frustrated by having to seek continual approvals elsewhere while trying to achieve necessary tasks. If an employee has both high authority and high responsibility, but no accountability, then it becomes easy for him or her to just coast, knowing that there are no likely repercussions for not fulfilling expectations, and the organization will suffer as a result. On the flip side, if the accountability function is ratcheted up too high, then it becomes difficult for an employee to achieve his or her responsibilities, even with clear authority, because of the constant micro-managing attention to activities that should be free from continual oversight and evaluation. I’ve always used my LMET training in evaluating potential work situations, and then once engaged, I’ve done my best to create the proper balance between those three facets of management, for myself and for those entrusted to my supervision.
I’ve been fortunate in most of my professional roles to have identified or developed nonprofit boards that allowed me to build and maintain appropriate balance between professional authority, responsibility and accountability. But with my pending retirement from the salaried work world in a few weeks, this will change for me, as I will no longer possess authority (nor responsibility, nor accountability) as a function of the position that I hold within an organization, for the first time in well over 35 years. In most typical freelance or consulting roles, I’ll likely have defined responsibilities and accountability, sure, but not much positional authority. Which means that I will have to fall back more heavily on that first form of authority, which I can claim for myself as a function of what I know, what I can do, and how well I can communicate it. I’m okay with that, I think. I’ve proven over the years that I’m pretty good at positioning myself as an expert, and I’m also fairly adept at being accountable to myself when I need to be. (Pro tip: I’ve found that it’s helpful to publicly state intentions on this front, e.g. telling all of my readers here that I was going to write a 12-part series called “Credidero” last January made me more likely to actually do it this year. Ten down, two to go!)
A few other facets of meaning and belief emerged for me as I considered the concept of authority over the past month. The first came when I did my usual research into the etymology and history of the word to be studied for the month. “Authority” has its roots in the Latin auctor, meaning “originator” or “promoter,” and that root also produced the modern English word “author.” I like the concept that developing and claiming authority is an act undertaken by an author, in that we write our own narratives, and then (using another element of the ancient word), we must promote those narratives in order to bring them to meaningful fruition. I do this continually, in so many places and so many ways, here on this website and in my “real world” personal and professional lives. All we are is all we’ve been, so in theory, I should get ever better at this as I age, so long as I don’t ever lose the rampant curiosity that’s often the motive force and lubricant of my learning and communicating processes. We’ll see how that goes.
There was another interesting intermediate evolutionary meaning in the etymological history of this month’s Credidero word. In 13th/14th Century Old French, between the Latin auctor and the English authority, we find autorite, which was an “authoritative passage or statement, book or quotation that settles an argument, passage from Scripture; authoritative book; authoritative doctrine.” In this usage, authority wasn’t a particular person, nor a power held by said person, but rather an inhuman physical artifact that was deemed to embody decisive decision-making power. This reminds me of the most beautiful of the Gospels, which John the Evangelist opened by simply explaining that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While we read this metaphorically, obviously, the idea that written and spoken words may carry the purest essence of the divine within them has always been highly appealing to me.
A self-professed and self-proclaimed right of authority has more heft if the very words that anchor it are right, and true, and inspired as outward manifestations of inner truths, or local observations of universal realities. In this sense, standing as a personal authority, even without positional authority, may be a path along which or a vehicle through which legitimate and pure societal good may be promulgated and promoted. Words have immense power to foster change, if you use them wisely. I like to think this is what I’ve done in my work over the past three-plus decades, and I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to do so in the years that remain ahead of me.
But the dark flip side of this paradigm is embodied by another modern English word that derives from the Latin auctor: Authoritarian. It’s tragic and troubling to consider how relevant this word has become again in modern political practice and parlance, as weak and insecure national leaders at home and abroad expect unquestioned obedience, and act tyrannically when they do not receive it. I read an interesting interpretation of the etymology of this word, which likened it less to “authority” and more to “author,” as authoritarian leaders seek to be the masters of the fictional worlds that they create. Unfortunately, almost all of them also have positional authority, which allows them to leverage vast monetary, legislative and military machines toward their own nefarious ends. That way evil lies. And madness.
This tendency toward authoritarianism becomes all the more dismaying and tragic when leaders are propped up by corporate propaganda machines and other weak and insecure legislators who use their own positional authority to propagate their leaders’ hateful messages and paper over their childish and/or criminal behaviors, lest they rock the status quo that’s elevated them, Peter Principle style, to positions well above their apparent capabilities and capacities. I think most folks my age in the United States grew up perceiving authoritarianism as a dead or dying political system. I doubt that many of us would have imagined that we’d be close to living in it as we eyeballed our retirement years, and that the centuries-old system of checks and balances designed to protect us from it would fail for nakedly partisan political reasons. Here’s hoping that enough of us wake up and exercise the authority constitutionally bestowed upon us as voters in 2020 to turn this tide, before it sweeps us away into the type of future that dystopian science fiction writers favor.
While there’s no question that authoritarianism is a bad thing, and must be resisted by sane citizens of any state, I find it interesting how often people look through that same lens when considering any form of authority. If you go search Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or any other similar online quote banks for the word “authority,” the vast majority of the quotes that search returns will be focused on questioning, disobeying, challenging, or dismantling authority. Now, this may be a function of the fact that the types of writers and thinkers whose quotes end up in Bartlett’s are more apt to be anti-establishment types than the average citizen, or it may just be that these sorts of “Fight the Power” epigrams are more memorable and inspirational than the “He loved Big Brother” ones are, hence their appearances in such anthologies and encyclopedias.
But I have mixed feelings about blindly conflating authoritarianism with authority, as I loathe the former, but am more than willing to accept the latter, if it’s properly earned or bestowed. To some extent, that may be a function of the fact that I’ve counted on my own authority time and time again in my professional life as a key tool to achieve the things I want to achieve, and I don’t feel that every act and every decision I’ve taken with the authority vested in, or claimed by, me should be subject to scrutiny, question or rebuttal. I give other authorities the same benefit of the doubt that I expect from other people in considering my own actions and activities. I hope that as I move into a phase of my life where my authority stems from who I am and what I do, rather than from what position I hold, that I’ll be able to still leverage such authority to achieve my desired ends. Which, hopefully, will not be authoritarian in tone or tactics.
As I read back over what I’ve written this month, I note that there are more subtle semantic dances than usual, as I seek to shoehorn “authority” into the “what I will have believed” rubric behind this Credidero series of articles. But I think that was a necessary approach to wrestling with a concept that has so many significant variables operating within closely-aligned, but not exact, definitional distinctions. When I look at the authorities around me, I value those who bring earned or acquired expertise more than I value those who are granted authority by their positions, but I still value those positional authorities, so long as they don’t become authoritarian. There’s a need for vigilance, surely, as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, there’s also a need for those authorities themselves, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . ”
Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this tenth article complete, I roll the die again . . .
. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Three: “Mortality.” Since there’s only one topic left after that, I also know that December will be dedicated to Topic Number Two: “Possibility.” I guess those are two heady concepts with which to wrap the project!
All Articles In This Series: