My issues with authority (3 of 3): rules for commanding!

Happy new year! It’s been a while since my last post and it has been a great holiday! ūüėČ The first working week has also flown by, time to wrap that up¬†with this final post in my¬†authority trilogy.¬†In the last post I flirted with anarchy, as authority itself seems to have some damning consequences. I also stated I don’t see a life without authority, it is necessary sometimes. The last few weeks I’ve been musing about when to command and obey. During this period I¬†bought the book “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederic Laloux and I think his¬†theory¬†applies to my investigation. Combining Laloux’ theory with my own thoughts,¬†let me try to define what I think we should use authority for.

Reinventing organizations

Laloux’ book contains his¬†theory on how humanity has organized itself in the past. It details which major steps have come to organizational evolution. It continues with¬†the steps that are now unfolding.

Inventions in human organization

Laloux writes that we as humans have evolved the way in which we organize ourselves. The first time we invented a method of organizing ourselves was back in the stone age. We used fear to drive away foes and competitors and we kept our wolf pack in line by giving strong commands. Laloux calls this model the Red organization, it is visualized below by the image of a howling wolf.

Skipping a few years, we wound up in the hierarchical organization. Think of the Roman armies for instance. This form of organization offers a lot more perspective for individuals, but is still driven from the top down. This model is called the Amber organization. It is visualized below by the image of a soldier.

Reinventing Organizations visualization

Visualization of reinventing organizations. Created by Peter Green from

Laloux has three more stages as you can see and part of that is showing what is happening right now. I will write another blog post with more detail on Reinventing Organizations.

Applicability to authority

What I love about “Reinventing organizations” is that Laloux also states that there is still a need for the earlier stages of organization. Even in the Roman armies, there was a place for the Red form of organization. Even the Roman armies could be ambushed. In that case, it would be great to have someone take command and organize the defense by personality. Laloux’ theory matches therefore with my thoughts of the past weeks. Even in today’s best organizations, there is a place for authority and authoritative behavior.

On the other hand, Laloux is also very clear on the fact that we are moving forward. Authority and fear are not used as much as they were. What I will do in this post and a next few posts, is to crisply define when we must use authority. My personal statement is, that all other uses are not warranted. Next up, my first rule of authority.

First rule of Authoritative conduct

a command being appreciatedThe situation I would like to be commanded in, is if I was in a life-threatening situation that I had no skill or expertise in. An example of this¬†would be if I was in great pain¬†and went to the emergency room. It would be great if there was a doctor that could help me. If this doctor told me to take some medicine, I definitely would. I have never been in that emergency room, so have no knowledge of how to help myself. I cannot risk experimenting and just trying some¬†solutions. The pain is severe, I could¬†die. I don’t have the time to get skill or expertise, so if someone could help me: I’ll obey.

Defining the rule

There are four elements that are characterizing this situation:

  1. First off, it is about an individual lacking skill or expertise. If I am a doctor myself, I don’t need to be commanded. I can be advised or even select¬†the remedy myself.
  2. This situation is also about a real threat to my life. If I am going to the doctor for a sore toe, it is not crucial that I listen. The stakes are simply not high enough.
  3. Next to that, time is an important aspect. If there is ample time, it is doable to research or experiment. I could find the skill or expertise required and overcome the threat myself.
  4. Finally, the other person has to have the skill/knowledge to mitigate the danger. If my carpenter tells me to take a particular medicine, I hope I am wise enough to not obey.

Only if all of these elements are present, is it really necessary to issue commands. In all the other situations, we can provide advice, we can ask for participation in the solution, or use other means to get out of the situation.
Combining these elements, I will define the first rule of authoritative conduct as:

‘Use Authority to protect ignorant people from immediate danger’

Two sides of the coin

Thinking about this scenario there are 2 sides to this coin: the person that needs to follow orders, the commanded, and the person giving the orders, the commander. Either side might not like to use or accept authority.

As the commander in this scenario, it is your duty to give that command. Giving advice is not the way to go, it might be ignored. Asking the opinion of the commanded might help you realize that he/she is truly ignorant. It will not help mitigate the danger. Taking all this into account, we can define the commander side of the rule as:

‘Giving a command is necessary if the person receiving the command is not aware how to get out of immediate danger and you are.’

As the commanded in this scenario, you will most likely love to receive orders. You are in danger, so any help is appreciated. There are cases however where the danger itself is not clear to the person receiving the command. Think of a 2 year old almost walking onto the road. The kid cannot see that there is a car coming at him with 50 km/h.

‘Following a command is necessary if you are¬†in immediate danger and the command comes from someone¬†who does know how to take it away.’

Applying the rule to business

In work environments, there are scenarios imaginable where this rule applies. I
have a few examples in mind:

  • Authority applied in case of an emergencyImagine your office¬†building would be on fire. You would¬†follow the evacuation instructions of the Emergency Response Officers. They have been trained to know what to do, you haven’t. If you were to use the elevator, they would have to command you not to do so. The elevators are not safe in case of fire, so use the staircase instead.
  • If you are working in an assembly line there might be situations where heavy machinery can threaten your life. If you are not yet very experienced, you can easily make a mistake that would cost you dearly. Your colleagues telling you what not to do would be very helpful.
  • A doctor in training in the Emergency Room might endanger someone else’s life with his choices. Consider if¬†the doctor in training would choose the wrong procedure in a critical situation. All parties would benefit if the doctor that was mentoring him, told him what¬†procedure to use instead.

These are exceptional situations though. Most people will not encounter life and death decisions in their work.

I have thought a lot about this rule and about whether it should be interpreted loosely. We could talk about immediate danger as a danger to the company, not to the individual. I cannot come up with decisions that are about life and death of a company, that also include a timing aspect. There are certainly decisions that can put a company in danger of bankruptcy. I have not found a single decision that was so time critical that it would require someone issuing a command. Can you think of such a situation?

Appreciating the command

Giving and receiving a command is an invasive means of communication. The commanded may feel violated afterwards. The commander can feel a strong reservation before commanding. On either side of authority it helps to ask questions regarding:

  • protection – is that really the aim? Is the person issuing the command capable of providing protection?
  • ignorant – is there really no skill and/or knowledge?
  • immediate – is there really a time element?
  • danger – is there really any danger?

There is not always time to ask these questions in the situation itself, time is an element here after all. It could be very helpful though to discuss the situation afterwards. Answering the above questions can help clear the air afterwards.

What then?

As I mentioned, this is the first rule. There are definitely more rules necessary, this one rule does not fit all situations. Can you think of situations where commanding is necessary? Your feedback helps! I will attempt to come up with a complete set of rules that help make the decision to command or not.

In the next blog posts, I will also go into methods of communication and even leading people that can be used without directly using authority. Expect a post on Reinventing Organizations, one about the Ladder of Leadership, also known as Levels of Delegation and a few with more rules for when to use authority. See you soon!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “My issues with authority (3 of 3): rules for commanding!

  1. Very nice Martin. I think it’s possible for an organization to be in immediate danger (a hostile takeover, a legal or security crisis of massive proportions). But as you said this would be rare, and would still benefit from your rules of command.

  2. Good point Peter, it might happen. The security crisis might be the most relevant one you mentioned, that merits some thought. What I do wonder though, is whether a really urgent security crisis is about the company or about the lives of the people working there. What do you think?

    The takeover and legal crisis would take hours or even days I would think. In those situations, we could still be polite to each other and get full cooperation by valuing each others input. The solution will always be better if we all give our best. Just my 2 cents ūüėČ