There are many ways in which authority suddenly emerges. It can be through an attribution of status, someone’s experience, someone’s place in the hierarchy, the clothes someone is wearing, or simply what is being said or written.
An often overlooked ingredient of authority is perception. The way someone assumes authority has a lot to do with their relationship to authority and the way they perceive others or whatever they are giving authority to.
As a coach, this is something I’ll frequently experience. Clients will ask for my feedback or my input in the hope that I have the answer they are looking for. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. There will be just as many occasions on which clients can avoid pushing back or will accept ideas I share as is without further reactions or even reflections.
Leaders experience similar situations. Sometimes their teams will simply follow their requests or ideas. And sometimes they will not even comment on ideas that they know to be false. In his book “Turn the Ship Around” Captain Marquet shares how he once gave the instruction for the submarine to increase speed to “ahead two-thirds.” The person receiving the instruction passed it on, but nothing happened. When Captain Marquet inquired what had happened, he was told that the submarine didn’t have such a speed. Nevertheless, the order had been passed on as if Captain Marquet had given proper instructions. For him, it became a learning that transformed his way of leading.
This doesn’t happen because people don’t know it better. It’s a result of how they perceive authority and react to it. And the perceived authority isn’t limited to people. It is just as true for many sources of information. For example, books, newspapers, or research can also be perceived as some kind of authority that has to be trusted.
It’s also true for images.
René Magritte, a Belgian surrealist painter, made this idea visible in a painting showing a pipe. Below the pipe he had painted “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This Is Not a Pipe). The painting has become a symbol for the treachery of images. What is shown in a painting is an abstraction of an object, and yet our minds will assume that it is the object. Another way to describe this phenomenon was coined by Alfred Korzybski‘s with his famous sentence “The map is not the territory.”