The appeal and the problem of being an authority figure

In this article, we’ll briefly explore the dynamics of authority figures, the appeal of being seen as one, the problem of being seen as one, and finally, what to do when it gets in the way.

BY MICHAEL F. BROOM, Ph.D. | CEO, Center for Human Systems

As leaders, we all have dealt with people who see us too much as authority figures. Such people automatically defer to us, whether we want them to or not.

There are certainly times when such automatic deference would be welcome when the demands of being a leader seem overwhelming. But we know better.

In this article, we’ll briefly explore the dynamics of authority figures, the appeal of being seen as one, the problem of being seen as one, and finally, what to do when it gets in the way.

Understanding authority figure-ness

We all have or have had authority figures, people we have automatically deferred to. They were the people who were important to us during our formative years, the people we depended on, for better or worse, to take care of us. Deferring to them out of respect or fear was crucial to our survival.

On automatic, we would treat others who reminded us of such importance with the same deference. Depending on the culture, we can confer deferential importance to bosses, ministers, entertainers, athletes, drug dealers and criminals. Leaders, of course, must be on that list.

As we mature, we replace automatic deference with conscious choices about who and when we will defer. The deeper the emotional tie was to the original authority figure, the longer it took to let go of seeing that person and similar others as authority figures.

Individuals raised with an emphasis on independent thinking and choice typically find it easier to move beyond automatic deference to authority figures.

As a leader, being seen as an authority figure is something you have little initial control over. You are the recipient of such influence only because you have reminded someone of a person they have deferred to out of respect or fear.

The appeal of being seen as an authority figure

At first blush, being seen as an authority figure would seem to make the job of leading easier. Those who see it that way rarely question your decisions. They do what you tell them to do. And they seldom complain to you.

They don’t offer the hassles that people who think for themselves can offer. Therein lies the rub.

The problem of being seen as an authority figure

The best leaders want to relate to their people in ways that maximize the energy and intelligence of their individuals, just as they seek to maximize the synergy and creativity that only effective teams can deliver.

Those who are overly deferential will not offer you much of their intelligence or creativity. They simply do what you want them to do. Much of their thinking goes to figuring out how to please or avoid your displeasure.

They are reluctant to take risks. They will bring to you their problems for you to solve. Thinking for themselves, taking initiative and creativity are too risky.

They may be a helpful pair of hands. As a leader, you want and need more than that from your people.

What to do about it

Here are three things you can do to turn authority-driven behavior into something more useful.

Be clear about your expectations

First, be clear in your own mind about what you expect from your people. Do you want sycophants who are obedient and support your ego?

Do you want empowered people who contribute intellectually, emotionally, and physically to the synergy of your organization? Which do you want, and which does your ego want?

Second, be clear with your people about those expectations. Hold them accountable for meeting them. Remember that accountability always starts with support.

Don’t collude with parent-child dynamics

Consistent authority figure behavior requires your collusion. If you act like a parent, they are likely to respond as children. For some, that means obedience. For others, that means counter-dependence.

Either party can start the collusion. A new person who acts like they need a parent could trigger your parenting behavior. Likewise, your parenting behavior can trigger their child-like behavior.

Be aware of your tendencies to collude. Don’t go there.

Support your people to empower themselves

Empowered people are self-aware and can make intentional choices about their behavior when their automatic responses are not taking them where they want to go. They have deliberately chosen to align with you and the success of your organization.

You cannot make some self-aware or to make conscious choices, but you can support them to do so in some very useful ways:

  1. Refrain from doing their thinking or problem-solving for them. If they come to you looking for answers, ask for their ideas and how they might research further. Insist that for every problem they want to discuss with you, they also offer possible paths forward
  2. Foster collaboration by insisting that everyone fully participate in planning and problem-solving discussions
  3. Acknowledge, appreciate, and reward different thoughts and ideas that contribute to team synergy. Without differences, there will be no synergy or creativity

In summary, the best leaders in the 21st century wield the power of their positions in ways that foster a positive and collaborative environment. We have moved strongly toward supporting people to be the best they can be in an open, diverse, and empowering environment that supports high levels of both productivity and engagement.

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist with 45 years of experience with various people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization and “Power, The Infinite Game with Donald Klein.

Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he founded the Center for Human Systems and is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.

Contact Dr. Broom for coaching and consulting for your organization at For more information on the Center for Human Systems and to check out its intensive programs and two-hour workshops, visit You’ll be surprised by the difference a single hour can make!

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