Authority Is Responsibility

When we recognize that authority comes from title or hierarchy, but leadership is earned thorough trust and respect, the wheels of our bureaucracy will align on the track of success and progress.

Authority Is Responsibility

“Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases. John Adams 

When the young ones graduate to enter the practical world as future employees, one of their greatest concerns is their prospective boss. When researchers and inventors are desirous of seeking new ideas, inventions, discoveries and propounding theories, they look for reliable academic authorities on their subjects. When people in true democracies cast their votes, they are in fact placing their faith and trust on the candidate of their choice, to exercise authority with responsibility, not to mention accountability. Such is the significance of authority in our world which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the moral or legal right or ability to control” and goes further as: “a group of people with official responsibility for a particular area or activity.

Persons in ordinary clothes, standing on a junction in their attempt to clear up a traffic jam may not have so much influence over commuters as uniformed constables. Although the former may genuinely utilize their abilities to smoothen out a mess, but the latter are more effective because not only are they designated to enforce law, but they also have the power to arrest and impose penalties. Anyone with a position of power envisaging a formal role in a private or public organization is considered to be authority. The same holds true for the state and its multi-faceted divisions, starting from the head, right down to foot-soldiers. 

The hierarchy of various organizations, including the state, pictures people situated at different tiers on the basis of usually, their seniority. Perhaps in privately owned corporations, this could be sometimes on the basis of competence or merit - that is why most of these enterprises stand out for their success and longevity, while the public sector appears to be lagging behind on many fronts. 

There is a popular adage that refers to a vessel which holds water only to the extent of its capacity. The larger the size, the greater the volume of water it can hold. If more is poured into it, the contents will flow out, causing wastage and reflecting on the poor wherewithal of the container. The same is true about human beings, whose ability to manage, develop, progress, sustain and succeed is relative to their inert talents. 

Expecting someone with no leadership qualities to succeed as chief executive officer is nothing short of a miracle.  On the contrary, an entry level official displaying appropriate signs of teamwork and commitment, if given the opportunity is bound to make a mark. Again, this is a scenario more to do with private, compared to publicly-run organizations.  

People tend to view authority with awe and sometimes, admiration. So remarks such as, “How lucky you are to be in the civil or military service!” or “What wouldn’t I do to take the place of my boss,” or even yet “If only I could become the prime minister for a day,” because if given the chance, many would willingly volunteer to take the place of someone whose position encompasses power and control over others.  Undoubtedly, we all aspire to be our moms and dads, especially when we are reprimanded as young pranksters, punished for being nasty and told to go to bed just when the party is beginning.  Such is the power of authority but what we fail to appreciate is the tremendous amount of responsibility that accompanies it.

Generally, we are inclined to silently bend our heads before authoritative figures whether at home, school, workplace, in public offices, on the roads, or wherever. To raise questions is equivalent to committing a felony. One is supposed to accede to whatsoever is being taught, obey to whatever is commanded, surrender to whatever an authority is dictating without raising an eyebrow and where one dares to revolt, succumb to the dictates of jurists who by themselves are another form of authority. 

Sensitive human beings tend to take everything with a pinch of salt. They are prone to questioning, to finding out things on their own, to challenge authorities in ways that shake their foundations. While understanding the real concept of authority they are probably driven by Albert Einstein’s words: “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.

A specific act is enough to break down artificially erected idols. A loose remark may have devastating effect on generations to come, especially when open and verified facts are defied by impetuous and ignorant authorities. Take the example of a widely-circulated video in which a religious cleric is seen claiming that the earth is static or is flat although the group of young students being addressed seem to be in a state of disbelief.

When persons in authority learn to be responsible, they would be more facilitating rather than creating hurdles, they would: stop demanding gratification and step forward to eagerly extend their assistance; realize that execution of their assigned duties has priority over obliging the service seekers; verify truth before penning ideas or speaking out their minds; be truly accountable for all their decisions and actions. If trustworthiness is absent, authority becomes nothing more than abusive in reality, and tyrannical in approach. 

One thing is definite. Merely positioning people in places of authority does not imply that they are automatically wiser or better than others, as many who are around them or their subordinates, could possess better qualities in terms of leadership and responsibility. In our system of work and governance, particularly in the public arena, such persons are viewed with suspicion and become a source of insecurity.

Therefore, they are either constantly snubbed, transferred or in some cases, even demoted to prevent the follies of their seniors from surfacing. With this state of affairs, no wonder our country is in a perpetual crisis of incompetence. When we recognize that authority comes from title or hierarchy, but leadership is earned thorough trust and respect, the wheels of our bureaucracy will align on the track of success and progress.

The writer is a lawyer and author, and an Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)