What’s the key to leadership? Legitimacy

By Jan Lüdert, PhD.

Sociology and leadership: Max Weber’s Three Faces of Authority

Max Weber, the father of sociology, proposed a tripartite theory of authority that remains a handy framework to probe leadership questions today. In his essay “The three types of legitimate rule” he identified how leaders are legitimized by three types of authority: traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational. As you read, think about how these three faces of authority show up around you.

Traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational authority

Traditional authority is based on custom and convention. Traditional authority does not have to be rational or even consistent with social realities. It is passed down through the ages and perpetuates the status quo. Patriarchy is an enduring example.

Charismatic authority is found in leaders repudiating the past and who inspire a vision. Their rallying cry is, “Change!” Charismatic leaders spearhead movements and, according to Weber, hold special abilities. They are legitimized as long as they receive recognition and are able to satisfy the group. Charismatic leaders in recent history Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi or the Dalai Lama.

Legal-rational authority stands for trust in the validity of law (legal) and utility (rationality). Legal-rational authority generates order. Authority is not only based on charismatic leadership or tradition, but on norms and rules specific to modernity. Bureaucracies, whether they are private or public institutions, epitomize the third face of authority.

Leadership based on authority is complex

The interactions between these three faces of authority are complex. It’s important to appreciate that traditional authority is largely symbolic. Charismatic authority, on the other hand, is most dynamic and dependent on individuals. Legal-rational authority differs from its traditional complement as more dynamic, and unlike charismatic leadership, is impersonal.

Each aspect of authority can be understood by their relative stability in time and how they reinforce or weaken one another in a given situation. Ask yourself how a charismatic leader can affect a bureaucracy. Or how traditions are imbued in institutions, such as the state government, schools, universities and the city council.

Legitimate leadership today

Leadership is, as Weber clarifies, about legitimate authority. Which of the three faces of authority is most important to you? What context highlights leadership issues, alongside the three faces of legitimate authority?

Consider for instance, how much leadership depends on the (continuous) endorsement from others. Or how a charismatic leader emerges in an environment of like-minded actors, that if she resonates with their calls for change, she will receive backing. Then think how traditional authority supports a leader’s rise because she carries conventional attributes, or speaks to tradition.

Yet again such leaders can unsettle entrenched structures when a charismatic female leader challenges patriarchy. In a similar vein a leader in a bureaucratic setting to be effective within the organization must skillfully follow procedures and can bring about change often only in a piecemeal fashion. Or think about a traditional leader, such as a religious figure, who receives legitimation on the basis of custom.

Can traditional leaders be challenged by social movements or by legal norms?

These are big and important questions! As Weber reminds us, raising these questions is taking leaders’ legitimacy seriously. The three faces of authority he proposed clarifies how legitimacy and leadership intersect and work.

As Weber put it, “Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”

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Published May 3, 2017



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