Authority Figure Vs Role Model

The other day I read an email where someone was referred to as an authority figure. Now, while they are in a leadership role, I had never considered that they had “authority” over me. When I, in the past, had been in that role I had never thought of it as a position of authority either. I had, however, thought of it as being a role model.

As adults many of us have experienced authority issues in our past. We have had many people in our lives exert authority over us for a variety of reasons. In the case of our parents it was probably to keep us safe, or teach us the family rules, or to stop us from doing the things that they feared would cause us some type of damage. Teachers needed to keep us under control, after all they were surrounded by potentially unruly children. They were also responsible for teaching us the rules.

For most of us, this was probably the last time we were benefitted in any way by someone having authority over us, and yet it certainly isn’t the last time anyone tried. Employers, partners, and many others who believe that being in a position of leadership means being the boss of, have attempted to enforce authority over us.

I remember in a class I took in college the instructor told us that a traditional Native American belief is that “no man has the right to tell another man what to do.” I would add that no adult has the right to tell another adult what to do. You may be thinking “what about my employees” or “what about this other group that I am somehow responsible for?”

After we reach a certain age, probably around 18, we are from then on mostly responsible for ourselves. We can vote, we must assume responsibility for our choices, and many of us eventually become responsible for others (children, partners, aging parents, employees… ) We know that we’ve had issues around authority (and possibly still do) and yet we seem to seek out those whom we ourselves can boss around.

What I would like to suggest is that we shift from this perspective of authority and instead approach our relationships from the position of role model. Role models are examples of appropriate behavior. They teach others by showing them how it’s done. I know that as a teacher of adults they have always responded to me as a role model much more enthusiastically then they ever would as an authority figure. And I am much more comfortable as a role model as well. As a role model I can approach life with integrity and honesty. I can be fair and compassionate. An authority figure is more of a “do as I say” position. They often must make decisions that will disempower others. Role models teach people what to do and then hold them accountable; authority figures tell people what to do and then punish them if …

Read more