The word authority comes from the Latin root augere (augment), from which the noun auctoritas (authority) is derived. Romans used it to convey command, power, and influence. Religion exercises authority through commandments, the military communicates authority through orders, and managers like to define authority by acting officially. While the source of authority is hereditary in kingdoms and legal in the military, society also recognizes learned authority (distinguished university professors, for example, or Nobel Prize recipients) and charismatic authority (highly talented people).
Every culture is governed by a different matrix of authority.
For instance, in Singapore, authority is obsessed with keeping the city clean and the citizens in compliance with the law. In Cuba, authority flows from Fidel Castro down to the citizens. In Tibet, spiritual authority flourishes. The Dalai Lama recently recognized the authority of a six-year old girl as the reincarnation of a Hindu goddess.
I grew up in Austria, and I remember that the older generation revered the all-powerful authority, Emperor Franz Josef (Austria was a monarchy until 1918). When I was growing up, I felt that the Catholic church had the most authority. I recall looking at my first paycheck and being surprised that the state deducted a “church tax” from my income. The authority matrix included the government and academia. To this day in Austria, a doctor is an authority figure who is rarely questioned by common folks. In social circles, the status of a woman who marries a doctor is automatically elevated, since she is called “Frau Doktor.”
In France, authority was transferred after the French Revolution (1789) from the King’s crown to the masses, and society became the source of authority. I remember how I felt when I moved from a small city in Austria to Paris. It felt like coming home. I already spoke French, had visited Paris many times before, and loved French food. The authority matrix felt similar to the one I was exposed to in Austria. It felt like an upgrade from coach to business class because of haute cuisine.
I didn’t have the same experience coming to the United States. On a business level, it felt like an upgrade to first class. I loved American management methods; I found the free-enterprise system liberating and enjoyed the fast-paced, highly competitive world of business. On a personal level, I felt confused. I came to this country at a time when the Watergate hearings dominated the headlines. I could not think of a country in Europe where senators would question government officials about the conduct of a president who declared in public, “I am not a crook.”
US Citizens Bestow Authority
As I grew more familiar with American customs and prepared to become a US citizen, I became curious about America’s authority matrix. I soon realized that the American Revolution was a radical departure from the idea that authority descends from superiors to inferiors. I was in awe of the concept that authority can rise from citizens to political leaders. I treasured the idea that citizens are in charge of the government, and I loved the fact that ordinary people could hold their leaders accountable. The demand for accountability isn’t limited to politics in the United States. I was pleasantly surprised by howthe relationships between professionals (doctors, lawyers, consultants, etc.) and their clients were governed by the willingness to question the authority of the professional at any time.
While the French still revere the well-educated elite, Americans celebrate individuality, even when the individual makes a complete fool of himself. I still remember when John Riggins, a former Washington Redskins player, attended a festive event and leaned over to his seat mate, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and said, “Loosen up, Sandy baby,” before passing out under the table. Twenty-five years later, Riggins bragged about the incident: “We’re linked together for life, which is good for me but not so good for her.”
It seems that over time the Internet is reshaping the authority matrix, not only in the United States, but all over the world. President Obama’s campaign utilized social media and gave his candidacy greater leverage. YouTube brought charismatic authority to the Obama girl by attracting more than 20 million lusty eyeballs.
Students Get the Authority to Grade Teachers
In the past, teachers were authority figures who graded the students. Today, the Internet gives students the power to rate their professors (check out www.ratemyprofessors.com). See two examples below:
It’s clear that society is transferring a great deal of authority to the Internet. Google is a search authority, Wikipedia is an encyclopedic authority. Internet sites give anyone the chance to rate his or her doctor or lawyer (www.avvo.com). The public is beginning to trust the collective ratings system. Sites such as Yelp.com or Zagat.com rate restaurants, and a site called Alexa.com ranks Website traffic.
It appears that the Internet has created a new collective order that is slowly pushing aside the traditional authority matrix while replacing it with social metrics.
The Internet Measures the Crowd’s Authoritative Sentiments
Internet sites are grading people like you and me – whether you know it or want it. Klout.com has educated me about my own authority based on my Twitter and Facebook postings. Here is my Klout summary, fresh and updated today:
How much can we trust Klout.com? I am still having a hard time believing my score, since I just looked up Barack Obama’s score, and according to this authoritative site I am five points ahead of the president of the United States! (I’d be happy to give him my points in exchange for making good on his promise to fix the economy.)
The Internet has become the great equalizer that allows society to shine the spotlight on leaders based on their contributions to the crowd. The crowd is listening, and traditional authority is in the hot seat. In the Internet world, fresh authority is minted through social-networking channels, and it is bestowed through ratings, comments, and email forwarding. Traditional authority is forced to open its kimono, practice transparency, and be more accountable. I predict that thought leadership will give way to conversation leadership. We are all longing for better conversations about the ideas that matter most. In the end, our authority will depend on the quality of the ideas we diligently cocreate, intelligently apply, and passionately share for the benefit of society.