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Commentary

Max Weber’s 3 types of authority

The sociologist and philosopher Max Weber distinguishes three types of authority—charismatic, traditional and legal-rational—each of which corresponds to a brand of leadership that is operative in contemporary society. Jeffry Ocay, a scholar in critical theory, explains that the achievement of a particular form of political order in any democracy depends on prevailing conditions “in which different forms of society cohere” and different ways “in which consensus is achieved.”

First, charismatic authority points to an individual who possesses certain traits that make a leader extraordinary. This type of leader is not only capable of but actually possesses the superior power of charisma to rally diverse and conflict-prone people behind him. His power comes from the massive trust and almost unbreakable faith people put in him.

Second, traditional authority indicates the presence of a dominant personality. This leader is someone who depends on established tradition or order. While this leader is also a dominant personality, the prevailing order in society gives him the mandate to rule. This type of leadership, however, is reflective of everyday routine and conduct.

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Third, legal-rational authority is one that is grounded in clearly defined laws. The obedience of people is not based on the capacity of any leader but on the legitimacy and competence that procedures and laws bestow upon persons in authority. Contemporary society depends on this type of rationalization, as the complexities of its problems require the emergence of a bureaucracy that embodies order and systematization.

All three forms exhibit a specific weakness or problem.

First, charismatic leadership can be problematic because it is somehow based on some form of a messianic promise of overhauling an unjust system. It is not impossible, however, to find such type of a leader, as history would show. Consider Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela. A charismatic leader holds the mission to unite his people amid adversity and differences in order to attain an almost insurmountable goal.

Second, traditional authority poses its particular difficulty insofar as it is based on some kind of a dominant power. For Weber, all authority exhibits some form of domination. A traditional leader may rely on or even exploit prevailing practices. Traditional authority may suffer from a lack of moral regularity in the creation of legal standards.

Third, legal-rational authority makes manifest the power of the bureaucracy over the individual. In the exercise of authority, the administration of power, laws and rules, including institutional duties and protocols, have control over individuals. While order and systematization are desirable, the bureaucracy may not be able to fully address the problems and concerns of everyone, as what the development of nation-states today suggests.

Modern societies rely on legal-rational authority in terms of finding a common ground in which consensus may be achieved. But consensus on the basis of agreements often lacks flexibility, which may embody the dominance of a bureaucratic mentality of which government service is sometimes accused.

Weber’s analysis of modern societies also points to the idea that capitalist states do give rise to bureaucratic authority. Instrumental reason, grounded in the “means to an end” discourse, can be found in the exercise of authority on the basis of laws, rules and procedures that govern citizens. For Weber, legal-rational authority has been successful in Protestant countries because Protestantism fills the bill in terms of responsible capitalism. The basic point is that Protestant ethics emphasizes hard work and individual responsibility, which are both necessary in order to maintain and pursue the ends of capitalism.

As a people, Filipinos not only need to have the knowledge about the character traits of the leaders we so desire. More importantly, we have the moral duty to understand collectively the basic requirements that confer legitimacy on the mandate of government officials in whom we entrust the future of this nation. Democracy is about how and why power must be reconfigured so that it emanates from the center in order to capacitate the peripheries. But democratic change cannot be achieved simply by means of rewriting our laws. An ideal discourse situation in the grassroots must be present.

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The Philippines has always been a difficult case. Right now, what the country needs is a unifying leader who must exhibit both political will and charisma, one who can bring about social and political cohesion in the pursuit of public interest. Given the problems that we have, becoming the country’s leader should be an unenviable position. But we have to make the right choice. The continuing saga that is Philippine democracy is not wanting in terms of potential heroes and villains.

Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.

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TAGS: authority, leadership, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Max Weber, Nelson Mandela
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