In leadership positions, or when we’re trying to influence people, there are two ways we can show up. The differences are subtle but they lead to drastically different outcomes and levels of sustainability. It’s the difference between using power and authority.
As you can imagine, using power is more destructive. It involves using force to create a certain result with way less care for the consequences. Power is something that you impose on others and it manipulates the result because there’s a certain pressure being applied to shape it.
Authority is more grounded. It comes from a place of mutual understanding, and its effectiveness has been earned. When you have authority it means that you have credibility on a topic and that your instructions, recommendations, or guidance should be taken seriously. The outcome of authority is that people get to respond to the influence that you offer rather than be unwillingly manipulated by it.
This contrast makes the most sense through the lens of leadership. If you want to influence someone to do something, flexing your power over them is less ethical and sustainable than leveraging your influence. Different situations call for different needs, but for the most part you’ll want to come from a place of genuine trusted authority rather than power.
But beyond the way this distinction plays in relationships, there’s a similar application in the way we view ourselves. When you use power over yourself, like will-power, it has consequences. You use power to do things that you don’t feel like doing in the moment, which works in the short-term to change your behavior (and again is needed for certain reasons) but overall it doesn’t come from a place of pure motivation or desire.
Again, authority is more grounded. In a personal application you have authority when you feel inspired to maintain a certain standard, to follow through on a certain habit, or to make a certain choice. That’s not to say all of that is meant to feel easy, but when you reflect on it you’re connected to the purpose of it. It makes consistency easier because it doesn’t take from you like power does, it gives to you in the form of self-belief and self-gratification.
Let’s use the example of choosing whether you want to have ice cream as a dessert. Using power would be telling yourself not to do it. Using authority would be connecting that reason not to do it with your health goals, and that you’re choosing progress toward that over the short-term gratification of enjoying something sweet. Again, authority has reason and purpose to it.
To make this actionable, the way you cultivate more authority in your life is through clarity. Having clearly defined goals, expectations, standards, and habits will help you to live in alignment with them.