The Differences Between Authority and Leadership

We believe that one of the biggest barriers to effective leadership is that it is so frequently interlaced with the concept of authority. While leadership and authority may have some similarities, the differences between them are clear. These differences should illuminate why it's so important to view them as distinct concepts. The list below outlines the differences between authority and leadership. 

Our definition of Leadership: Leadership is the effective mobilization of social force to move individuals, groups and organizations toward fulfillment of their highest potential which results in thriving.

What then, is social force? Social force is an aspect of human society that can be harnessed and channeled to evoke changes the feelings, thoughts or behaviors in individuals or groups. It describes how humans influence each other. Leading, in our view, is the use of social force to foster thriving in individuals and communities.


  • Formal power that comes from one’s title, role or position within a hierarchy
  • The ability to administer extrinsic motivators (i.e. raise, bonus, award)
  • Securing the obligatory effort of others
  • A set of continuous responsibilities during the entirety of one’s tenure
  • Resides within the position and transfers to whoever holds it
  • Enforces rules, procedures and policies as determined by the organization
  • Comes with tangible benefits (e.g. perks and privileges)
  • Unidirectional from person with authority to subordinates

As you will see, leadership is quite different from authority.


  • Interpersonal influence that comes from one’s personal attributes
  • The ability to trigger intrinsic motivation in others
  • Evoking the discretionary effort of others
  • Moments of accountability that one chooses
  • Resides in between people and can be channeled by anyone
  • Maximizes Individual-Environment Fit in order to produce alignment and happiness
  • Produces intangible rewards in others (e.g. meaning, growth)
  • Multi-directional among people regardless of status

Our point is not to say that leadership is good and authority is bad. In fact, authority is a legitimate and necessary aspect of organizational life. The problem is that they are often lumped together whenever the word "leadership" is used. Often, what we really mean is "authority." This is far more than an academic difference, as anyone who has worked for someone who has authority but doesn't know how to lead can attest.

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