Power, Authority, Morality

The power play unfolded as most do. The clerk questioned the leader’s ethic in using company resources for personal use. The leader, ruffled by the challenge,  appealed to her superior position over the clerk and spoke of her  sacrificial work for the company.

The scene had the classic symptom of power play. The leader, avoiding the issue, offered a flimsy appeal to position or past ethical work or sacrifice instead of giving a moral justification for the issue at hand. The leader side-stepped the most basic, God-created fundamental need in moral processes: the justification. of being human, that need to make a judgment for ourselves about an event.

A close cousin to “power plays” is consistent abuse of authority that only appeals to its own authority as its sole justification.

Both power plays and abuse of authority weaken leadership and organizational success because they rob individuals of personal moral development (both leader and follower) as well as decrease a group’s or organization’s moral capital and ethical growth. Good decisions with good justifications raise the whole level of performance for a group.

Power and authority are crucial for social and industrial success and are in themselves not bad. They just can’t be used to morally justify themselves.

Power, defined broadly, is having a strength or ability to do something or influence others. Authority is having the legal or socially sanctioned right to use that power.[pullquote_right]Both power plays and abuse of authority weaken leadership and organizational success . . . [/pullquote_right]

Power can be seen in both animate and inanimate ways. Power can be the electricity that spins the power drill as it screws a bolt into a car fender or the muscle of the woman holding the drill. It can also be intellectual—the ability to program an iPhone App, or interpersonal when a driver shows the ability to talk himself out of a speeding ticket from the policeman vested with authority to give one.

Authority is having a legal or community sanctioned or divinely sanctioned right to exercise influence. The last point has become less compelling to the modern mind since democracy has challenge the divine right of kings and places more authority on policies and law created by dialogue and vote.  A republic is a democratic process within a frame of appeal to natural law rights that even a democracy can’t take from an individual.

This view of authority and power situated in a moral required world of justifications, I believe, speaks to a God who wants intelligent response. The loss of respect for kingly power does not need to be seen as bad. The Old Testament reminds us of what happened when kings were set up and when the didn’t listen to the prophets.

Power and authority can work together in dozens of ways to make organizations accomplish good things when they work with morality.   We don’t have space to discuss all the ways power and authority interact in organizations but I recommend tracing down material from researchers like Salancik, Pfeffer, and Bolman and Deal who have written on the interplay of personal, interpersonal and organizational power and authority.

[pullquote_left]“You can’t do that!” might be inserted as the tone of Abraham’s appeal.[/pullquote_left]

My point here is that morality is the unique variable in the work of power and authority to find better justifications for actions.

I believe God designed it that way.

Abraham shows this when in Genesis 18, locked in conversation, the discussion slowly moves from dialogue to potential debate with the Holy One. He said:

“Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25).

“You can’t do that!” might be inserted as the tone of Abraham’s appeal.

Here, the judgment is not about being in charge (even for God himself) but right in judging human situations. Even the Lord’s work as judge is seen in a more redemptive light. He opens Himself up to the scrutiny of all.

Herein is a more redemptive view of God’s final work of judgment since 1844. He is inviting more scrutiny, not less. He is condescending as much when He was born as a baby as now, as a Judge of all the world, because He is placing Himself in a place of scrutiny, increased transparency and appeal outside of the structure of power and authority alone to the well-being of His creation.

[pullquote_right]He opens Himself up to the scrutiny of all.[/pullquote_right]

While at times, as in the Flood, and the fire of Sodom and Gomorrah, and ultimately in the destruction of the wicked, divine authority takes on sterner demonstration, it is in alignment with power (His ability to do that), His authority (His recognized right to do it) and morality (a justifiable ethical reason to act).

Prayer: God, thanks for taking the lead as the best leader in the world. You have always been above reproach but have always been willing to reveal your work to us humans. Teach us this morality, so that as parents and leaders, we hear the need to give reasons. Like Abraham, we know we can challenge even You and discover in the process how truly capably you are as our leader. Help us to allow others that same privilege. We are humbled by your respect for us; help us respect others as well.

P.S. I want to thank that clerk for the simple lesson taught me about the need for appeal, scrutiny, disagreement, challenge, and the legitimate need we can place on leaders to justify their use of power and authority.


Review and Herald has the best collection of paintings and graphics on judgment and I will be purchasing some in the coming months to help create more beautiful images for the readers of this blog. Thank you for your patience with my learning process.

One Reply to “Power, Authority, Morality”


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.