With very few exceptions, anyone who wants to accomplish something satisfying and meaningful in his career will have to cultivate authority. Authority is, after all, how you convince others to do things, or at the very least to allow you to do things, and in what career is it possible to succeed without persuading others to act or permit action for your benefit? Even a solo practitioner or reclusive artist has to convince clients or customers to buy their services or products. Still, there are three distinct kinds of authority that influence people, so even if you must cultivate authority, at least you have some flexibility as to how you do so.
The first might be termed “rightful authority”, and it is nice work if you can get it. This is authority based on relationship or position — it’s “rightful” not because it is correct, but because it is grounded in the holder’s right to demand certain actions of others. This is the authority of kings and bosses — the clout that many people think of when they hear the word “authority”. If you hold the reins of power, however long or short, you usually have more opportunity to steer people in the direction you want them to go. Acquiring this kind of authority takes time and often long-term planning — developing a strong network of support, establishing a track record of success, etc. But much of that work can be approached in the context of developing your other forms of authority.
“Reasonable authority”, for example, is something you can start working on now that can also prepare you for advancing in rightful authority in the future. Reasonable authority is based on principles and their sensible application, and it relies not on the office of the decisionmaker but on the soundness of the decision. What is often called “moral authority” fits into this category, as would something like “scientific authority”. No matter where you are in the food chain, you can begin cultivating reasonable authority right now. What are you passionate about? What matters to you in your job? If you can identify specific areas in which to focus, and then work on developing your knowledge of those areas so that you know as much or more about them as anyone else you work with, then you will cultivate reasonable authority as the decisions you make and try to bring into effect prove to be sound and reliable. (Of course, where rightful authority and reasonable authority clash, rightful authority often wins. In the short term, at least.)
Finally, there is what I’ll call “personal authority” — the kind of forceful authority that people develop through their manner, attitude, and charisma. Rightful authority and reasonable authority both depend on a sense of legitimacy — legitimacy of position or legitimacy of conclusion — but the holder of personal authority does not need to actually possess any legitimacy. She only needs to convince others that she does. In one sense, this is the flimsiest sort of authority, because self-confidence and charm will only persuade others to follow you for so long, if the path you are asking them to follow leads nowhere useful. On the other hand, though, many people have taken advantage of the opportunities opened to them on account of their personal authority, and used those opportunities to improve their understanding of an issue or their connections to people able to grant them rightful authority. And, like reasonable authority, personal authority is something you can start cultivating right now.
If you have career goals — which you should — then you will need to be able to exercise authority at some point to bring them to fruition. Why not start cultivating that authority today?