12 Types of Authority

February 5, 2013

This post was adapted from my book Authority: The Leader’s Call to Serve.

No doubt about it, authority is one of the most polarizing words around. But it is also a natural and necessary aspect of life. Even those who seem most resistant to authority can’t escape it, both in their relationships with others and in their own plans and ideas.

A good example of this is the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which is widely considered an anarchist effort. In their take-over of Zuccotti Park, the OWS developed their own form of authority structure, with divisions forming between “Uptown occupiers” and “Downtown occupiers.” What formed, ironically, was class warfare within a movement founded on fighting class warfare. The Daily Show hilariously covered this in a segment called “Occupy Wall Street Divided,” with one protester telling reporter Samantha Bee, “Up there [Uptown] is like where the college hipsters that live in Brooklyn go and try to rule the park from. Down here it’s more of the poor people’s encampment, and it’s kind of contentious.”

OWS evolved a system of authority in just a few short weeks. This highlights one poignant truth about authority: we tend to love it when we have it and hate it when we don’t. Knowing this, that complicated word “authority” requires context and definition. 

There are many types of authority. Some are earned, others come through circumstances. It is important to be able to recognize these types, so that we can understand the tensions that arise when two types come head-to-head. Here is a list of twelve types of authority I have noted over the years: 

Type of Authority

Positive Use

Negative Use

Spiritual Leadership

Leading church members and equipping them for ministry.

Extending authority to matters outside the church.


Casting vision and teaching rooted in Scripture.

Not having vision in check with the authority of Scripture.


Making sure the original DNA of the organization is intact.

Not empowering other leaders.


Has a historic perspective on what might and might not work.

Feeling entitled based on past track record instead of current effectiveness.


Keeping other leaders accountable.

Not connected with day-to-day operations.


Influencing people to support the organization’s mission.

Using influence to push people in a negative direction.


Overseeing projects under other leaders to run the organization efficiently.

When ill-equipped: becoming overburdened and not asking for help when needed.


When well-informed: making good decisions for the organization.

When ill-informed: becoming a roadblock to progress and change.


Making decisions for the health of the organization.

Growing too cautious and hold up progress.


Becoming a rock star at executing projects and gaining respect of peers.

When not promoted accordingly: gaining influence that disrupts organizational structures.


Has a lot of practical experience to attack today’s problems.

Getting bogged down in the past; not seeing that past solutions aren’t always presently needed.


Supplying good theoretical knowledge for leaders on the ground.

Trusting theory over practice.

With a clear understanding of where we are in these types of authority and where we are under it, we can begin to grasp how to interact with authority. Defining the playing field can provide great clarity for you and your team as you wrestle through challenging situations. I’ve experienced the benefits of working through conflict when clear lines of jurisdiction are drawn. Take some time to reflect on these questions and how the new insight and answers may change your outlook on your present leadership roles.

What types of authority do you possess? How does your authority vary depending on the context? How can it help you to understand your own authority and the authority of those you interact most closely with? Are you over-stepping your bounds in any areas? Are you not inserting yourself in other types of authority where you should? 

Find out more about Authority: The Leader’s Call to Serve.