Thinkers since ancient times have discussed nature, forms and functions of authority. In modern times Max Weber (1922) has discussed it quite thoroughly.
His forms of authority are based on sources of legitimacy:
Subjects or subordinates accept commands of their superiors on the basis of precedents, past history or divine origin. Under this form of authority, delegation is ad hoc and arbitrary. Subordinates are treated as personal servants, who render services to the king as embodiment of symbols and traditions.
Under this form of authority, subordinates accept a rule or directive on the basis of its being in conformity with some higher universal principle which they regard as legitimate. Modern bureaucracy operates on this principle. Delegation is rational. Legally established impersonal rules constitute the basis of compliance.
When the subordinates defer to the orders of their superior on the basis of his personal qualities and put themselves under their impact, charismatic authority occurs. There is no delegation as such. Subordinates are treated as disciples and followers. As Weber regards rational-legal authority as fragile, he considers other forms of authority as correlates and complementary to it.
Authority may appear in some other forms also, such as:
(i) National and international;
(ii) In relation to organs of government, namely, executive, legislative and judicial;
(iii) Constitutional or statutory;
(iv) National, regional or local;
(v) Political or administrative;
(vi) Single, plural, corporate, commission or board form;
(vii) Economic, social, religious, technical etc.; and
(viii) Formal or informal.
Authority in general sense has unlimited functions. It is responsible for the determination and execution of systemic goals. It performs the functions of coordination, discipline, growth, and delegation. Systems attain pattern-maintenance, goal-attainment, tension management, etc., through establishment of appropriate authorities. Communication, decision-making, improvision of procedure and evaluation are the means and methods by which systems operate and persist over time.
Legitimate power is the basis of authority of an organization. Authority does not indicate superiority of an individual. He is only a living symbol of mechanism. This is the ‘magic of government’ that enables a man to command, even if he is less intelligent, less able, and below average than his subordinates.
Orders given by man in authority have to be carried out. In formal organisation, authority is rationally distributed among various persons making up the hierarchy of an organisation. But an informal organisation can also have authority, authority-positions, and authority-persons or authorities. Formal organisations, therefore, often try that informal organisations either do not grow or if they are unavoidable or required at all, they are kept within bounds.
The military does not permit their existence but trade unions are allowed to operate by law. Still very rarely they are one with each other. Informal organisations often grow underground, if not permitted to operate openly. Man does not live along with formal lines, and moves beyond the blueprint. This adds elements of sociability, cooperation, voluntarism to the bare bones of hierarchical organisations.
Authority operates on the road of values. Values, alike power, also impose restrictions on the exercise of authority. Often the constitutions begin with their value-preambles. Democrats do not cherish the exercise of authority. Power bereft of values is also not meaningful to the people at large. Values which may slowly change and gradually accepted by the ruler or the ruled help in transforming power into authority and authority into power. Kings and emperors in the past forcibly occupied other principalities, and in due course of time were accepted by their subjects as legitimate authority.
Power without authority remains indefinite, situational, instrumental, and un-institutionalised as brute force. Authority, built on the ground of accepted and institutionalised power, is specific, definite and limited by its nature. Its directives are considered binding being based on certain underlying norms. At least, the subordinates or people concerned have faith in their being based on those norms.
Authority wields all rights to execute a proposed plan, scheme or policy. It operates through a binding set of rules, regulations, procedure, conventions and established norms. Authority itself is bound by them, for, by nature, it has to appear definite, unambiguous, specific, and limited. It carries on the burden of responsibility and remains accountable to some higher one. It can be delegated to various points of organisational structure.
Thus, many sub-authorities come up which are adorned with many indicators or insignia for the convenience of recognition, distinction, ego-satisfaction, effectivity and discipline. Sometimes authorities are known by dress, crown, stars, seal, staff, locus, building and others. They are given certain discretion, immunities and positions or status. They have to be in consonance with the exercise of rights given to them.
Parts of authority lying with the wielders are coordinated with integrated hierarchies through various means and mechanisms. Authority is known by its compliance. But every time this does not happen. For its constant and effective compliance, and in view of its possible non-compliance, authorities are equipped with power and sanctions, occasions of influence and leadership, and other similar tools. In the absence of power, authority loses its influence.
In a sense, authority is the last expression of institutionalized power. Without power, it is merely goodwill, which is often subjective and exceptional. Politics connects power and authority at various levels, and with various devices.