On being authoritative

Last Sunday, I wrote an essay on power, talking about moving our culture from one where power is based on dominance to one of partnership. I’d like to dig a little deeper on that topic this week. In my professional life I’ve been exposed to some knowledge  that has helped me understand the dilemmas we face in understanding what partnership looks like.

A psychologist by the name of Diana Baumrind developed a theory about types of parenting based on two factors: demandingness and responsiveness. With that, she developed four styles of parenting:

1. Rejecting – not demanding or responsive

2. Permissive – responsive but not demanding

3. Authoritarian – demanding but not responsive

4. Authoritative –  both responsive and demanding

For our purposes, I’ll simply ignore the rejecting style. That’s because, in a system where power is based on dominance, we tend to focus on a style of relating that is either authoritarian or permissive. The former are the dominators and the later are the dominated. This all fits in nicely with the recent application of parenting styles to the political arena in the discussion about authoritarianism and John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience.

So when we analyze political interactions, we tend to see the partisanship of the authoritarian style as one option and the bipartisanship of permissiveness (or appeasing) as the other. Given only a frame of power based on domination, we’re faced with an either/or dilemma and will choose domination any day in a high stakes play for power. In my way of seeing things, this is what leads to everything from flame wars to actual wars.

But what this literature tells us is that there is a third way…authoritative. In the parenting literature, this is how that style is described:

These parents set standards, but also give their child choices. They recognize the good things that their child does, but they do not overlook the bad things. These parents are more confident and nurturing.

One of the parenting experts I worked with for years, Jean Illsley-Clarke used to talk about the importance, especially when dealing with teenagers, of knowing what’s negotiable and what’s not. Then you know where there’s room to give and where you have to take a stand. Most relationships require a little of both. And any coalition that is going to have an impact will require it as well. As Bernice Johnson Reagon said:

There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.

An authoritative position is one of great strength. But its not the strength of getting someone else to do what you want them to do by the force of fear and/or violence (of words or actual weapons). As a co-worker of mine says, the minute you feel like you have to prove that you deserve respect, you’ve lost the battle. If you know what you believe, as well as what’s negotiable and what’s not, you can enter a conversation with anyone about anything without having to be passive and give in or get defensive and go into dominance mode. Here’s John F. Kennedy at his inauguration making a strong and powerful case for partnership during the time of a high stakes battle for world domination with the Soviet Union.

So whether we’re talking about the global struggle, national politics, blog discussions, or personal relationships, it all comes down to having a sense of security in what you believe and in your own power. That’s the hard part. But for me, its where my evolution is happening, even as we speak.


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  1. from the Indigo Girls.

    • kj on February 15, 2009 at 17:18

    is another way i’ve heard (what i think you talking about) described.

    for example, i won’t tolerate being part of a community that uses the n-slur.  i also won’t tolerate being part of a community that routinely disses other members by calling them demeaning names or arm-chair analysing them (ie, “you’re self-involved, selfish, etc.)  so, either the community changes that behavior, or i leave the community.

    my involvement in the blogosphere, which i’ve been an active part of since before blogs existed, was based in the idea of working together in partnership.

    i am re-thinking, once again, whether that is possible, or whether the models we, as a collective, have chosen to follow are too far outside my requirements for what constitutes an engaged community.  

    • Edger on February 15, 2009 at 17:45

    instead of dominating them with power be an “authoritative” approach?  

    • kj on February 15, 2009 at 18:12

    “Think for yourself and question authority”

    ~~Timothy Leary

    he might as well have said, “Think for yourself and question the status quo.”

    There are so many directions this conversation could turn towards… power, authorative persons, etc.  rejection of the status quo, outsiders, etc.   for many of us of a certain age, those kinds of questions were placed smack in front of us at a significant ages… ages where we were already questioning the models we saw around us and learning what it meant to become a human being.

    i will always be grateful for that.  i hope to heaven it continues in some form for the generations coming up behind us… even if only in symbol.

  2. relying on being “authoritative” at work and actually if anything it has bitten me on the ass, I have been critiqued for being overly democratic.

    I can flick a switch if needed. I also try to adjust my communication style to that of the person I am talking to and use a bit of psychology by appealing to the information I know about them. If they are well educated and have made a point of bringing it up I appeal to intellect, if they are proudly redneck and have stated so I appeal to rugged individualism. It does require me to be emotionally calm and mentally prepared so the tactic is in no way fool proof .

    Obama must have a high degree of “emotional intelligence” combined with emotional mastery. The longer I am on this planet the more I think emotional intelligence is far more important that pure intellect. I know an awful lot of of leaders and non-leaders who are very smart but lack the other things.

    And on that note. Everybody called in sick at work so I get to cover a shift.

    • robodd on February 15, 2009 at 19:39

    This has been Obama’s approach.  He is clearly authoritative.

    But it runs into problems when the other party cares not whether you are authoritative and has ideological reasons not to get along with you.

    Remember too that JFK didn’t solve our problems with the Soviets.  It took years and a more receptive ear before we could get to glasnost.

    Do you have the same patience with the republicans? And what do you in the meantime?

    My solution to all this is that Obama not deal directly with the republicans, but with the American people.  They are the ones who should make the ultimate choice.

  3. I was interested in the authoritative model because I think this is what I try to create in my classrooms.  I’m always pushing my students but I try to be very supportive as well.  

    My favorite type of feedback is when I run into a former student who is studying somewhere else and I ask them, “Did I prepare you for what you’re doing now?”  When they say yes, I walk away with a smile on my face and it makes my day-to-day work in the classroom more meaningful.

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