Social Authority: Power Beyond the Throne

Historically, we embedded many of the manifestations of hierarchical control into our physical environment: City Halls, castles, libraries, universities, walls, ditches, astronomies, senates. The layers of authority were both conceptual and physical: you could only enter the spaces of power with the right permissions. And within those spaces, the person who was speaking held sway from thrones, pulpits, mounds and stages. Channels of communication were moderated and controlled by publishers, broadcasters, lawyers and the police.

Social Authority

Today, the pulpits are in our heads, the bastions of publishing have been overrun and the authority is consensual, moderated by the community within a framework of legal decency.

Formal authority still exists, but the types of control it exerts are different. It’s harder to control information, harder to repress knowledge, because the mechanisms of permeation and spread are so embedded in our lives. When every device of consumption is one of production, when we are all connected to the web in so many different ways, it’s hard to kill the story, hard to catch the storyteller.

Power is no longer vested in knowledge, hidden away, partitioned, doled out in small chunks in return for payment or privilege. The knowledge in itself is abstract without our ability to create meaning, to co-create within our communities and do something meaningful with it.

It’s a rebalancing: we have moved away from a space where authority was rigid, embedded, manifested through behaviours of control. Today, we live in a world where formal authority is balanced by social authority: there is greater accountability and a more fluid dynamic. Social authority is contextual and can, in certain circumstances, subvert formal.

Take reputation: it’s a fickle thing. Social Authority is founded upon reputation built over time. It’s about consistency and authenticity. You can’t cheat reputation. The NET Model looks at how we can actively curate reputation through humility, storytelling and sharing. Because reputation is the foundation of Social Authority, it goes without saying that if your reputation is strong, you can enhance your formal authority with social. But if your reputation is weak, if your actions are unpredictable or self centred, then you will have to rely increasingly on your formal, hierarchical authority, which is a weaker place to be.

Social Leaders should embody both strong formal and strong social authority. And their reputation is the source of their power.

Social Leaders can be more effective because they work within and alongside their communities, leveraging their formal and social authority in service of shared values and goals. They are humble and collaborative in their efforts, but highly effective by both formal and social standards. In other words, they act in a socially responsible way for the benefit of both organisation and individual.

This is not an aspiration: in a world that craves social justice and equality, we have to lead in this direction.

Citizen journalists, wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, the mechanisms and behaviours of the Social Age: curating, sharing, storytelling. No longer the preserve of the ‘experts’.

Agile organisations look at this world and recognise that there’s a need to adapt. They need to change their approaches to learning and communication, to how they use their authority and the types of leaders that they require.

Co-created and co-owned models of change are more suited to the Social Age, and it’s Social Leaders who will help us get there.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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68 Responses to Social Authority: Power Beyond the Throne

  1. An individual will need to understand the value of reputation, and how to build your own reputation as you provide service to society. The NET model, and core values of truth, fairness, through a medium- blogs – that is infused with articulation- good communication skills- will build reputations and societies together. We have seen many examples of how fickle reputation can be when a person fails to meet these requirements. Excellent essay.

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