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Four Types of Leadership Authority

Ever get tired of needing to be the tough guy? Or, wonder why your team can’t just work together like friends? Or, that you lack the authority to do the job?

The effective and legitimate exercise of leadership authority is no simple task. It requires an adeptness at changing hats to meet the needs of the moment. These hats I speak of are the four types of authority. Let me put it into a real-world story context.

About ten years ago, my daughter joined our mission agency and went to work for one of the teams under my responsibility. That meant that I, her Dad, was ultimately her boss—her boss’s boss to be precise.

You can imagine. This created some unintended awkwardness. It meant that anytime I called to chat, she was also being called by the boss. It also meant that anytime I wanted to check in as the boss, she would be hearing her Dad’s voice. Talk about confusing.

Then one day we stumbled onto a simple framework that helped us navigate those moments. I was about to ask her a question I routinely ask all of our staff, but it dawned on me that this could sound funny coming from her Dad. So, I made the observation. “Hey babe, can I check-in on something not as your Dad, but from my role as Director of ChurchNEXT? It’s a question I ask other staff all the time, but I know you will hear it in your Dad’s voice.”

Boom. We had language. From that point on we were able to clarify the “hat I was wearing” and eliminate—mostly—the confusion of authority and relationship. If she called to chat and it wasn’t obvious, I would just ask, “do you want me to listen right now as your Dad or as the boss?” Or, I would ask permission. “Would it be OK if I changed hats and responded as an experienced coach rather than just your Dad?”

Often a conversation started in one mode but unexpectedly shifted in a way that required a different hat. A slight pause to recognize the shift gave us freedom to listen or speak differently.

Alright, back to the subject of the four types of authority. That example of wearing the different hats with my daughter is a terrific analogy for the way leaders learn to exercise all four types of authority and shift nimbly between them.

Failing to gain comfort and competency in all four types of authority will cripple your leadership at precisely the wrong moment

The Four Types of Authority and How They Work:

  1. Positional Authority People will do what you say because your position gives you power or authority over them. It recognizes that the “buck stops with you.” However, positional authority when abused hurts people, wears them out, and demotivates them. Exercised well, it is not only appropriate, it creates stability and security in the whole system. Healthy positional leaders rarely call attention to their position, yet they never shrink back from exercising the authority of that position when needed.

  2. Relational Authority People will do what you ask because you share a trusted relationship. Suggestions, advice, and correction are generally received well because of relational credibility. Relational authority tends to be more invitational in its nature and can create a deep sense of partnership because of it. Relational authority is the currency of resilient teams and strong volunteer-based efforts. (See my, “Everyone is a Volunteer” post.)

  3. Expertise-based Authority People follow experts precisely because they know what to do. Experts don’t need deep relationship nor any type of position to exert influence. Their influence flows from experience or training—usually both. This kind of authority generates quick trust and followership—as long as the area under discussion flows directly from the expertise of the leader. Step outside that arena of expertise and other types of authority are essential.

  4. Spiritual Authority People follow this leader because they walk deeply with Christ. There is a unique anointing or spiritual power that emanates from their way of life. You sense they have heard God speak and are leading out of obedience to what they heard. It might sound ambiguous, but you recognize these people and trust their leadership because of the spiritually anchored life they live. Leaders with spiritual authority never need to demand followership because, “God told me so.” That is a manipulative attempt to hide someone’s insecurity with positional authority.

The greatest leaders are highly relational. They know when to leverage their expertise and when to sponsor someone else in who has needed expertise. They are growing deeper into active intimacy with Christ. And, they are unafraid to put on the hat of positional authority whenever difficult moments demand it.


  • Can you imagine the damage of over-reliance on any? … or avoidance of any?

  • Which of the four types of authority are you most comfortable using?

  • Which are you most uncomfortable with?

  • Do you ever find your insecurities causing you to overplay the positional authority card? … Or, the alternative, make you afraid to exercise positional authority?

  • Can you picture people from your own experience that wore these four hats of authority well? What specific lessons did you learn from them that would be worth emulating?


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