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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Why Authoritative Figures Can't Be Vulnerable

In my last article, I shared that there is a cost associated with being vulnerable: a loss of deep connection with other people. This is a huge cost to all of us since we’re all wired to desire connection with others. However, some people, even after having come to this realization, have chosen to remain invulnerable. Why? Is there something they know about vulnerability that we’re missing?

As I shared in my article last week, there could potentially be a high cost associated with being vulnerable. It could be the loss of friends, family, your spouse, your job, your house, or power. For the remainder of this article, I will be discussing the cost associated with losing power because for some, this cost is so great that they would rather remain invulnerable than risk losing it.

How Authority Works

In order to understand why the cost of vulnerability is so high for people who have power, which for the purposes of this discussion I will also refer to as authority, we have to start by gaining an understanding of how authority works. I realize this discussion may sound elementary, but I think it’s important nonetheless to spend a brief moment reviewing it. One of my favorite explanations of authority was once stated by a Roman centurion:
For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.[1]
The basic principle this guy was getting at was that when the person who has authority over him gives him a command, he does it. And when he gives a command to the people under his authority, they do it. This is the way authority works.

Another way of looking at it would be to say that the authoritative person has the power to “control” the actions of the people under him. If your boss says he wants you to put a cover on his TPS reports, then you pretty much have no choice but to put a cover on them. Make sense?

Everyone Wants Authority

Everyone wants authority to one degree or another. Certainly some people want more of it than others, but that doesn’t take away the fact that we all innately desire it. Of course I’ve developed an entire theory explaining why I think people want authority, but I’ve decided that including it in this article is unnecessary to arriving at a conclusion to the question at hand. If you’d like to read more about it, let me know and I’ll send it to you or write it as a future article. For the point of the discussion in this article, all I’m really after is making sure we’re on the same page with realizing that we all want authority.

The Power Struggle

Our desire for authority wouldn’t be an issue if we all wanted authority over different things. But the problem we face is that we’re not the only ones who want that authority; we’re always stuck in a competition with one or more people for authority. When another person wins, we lose. When we win, another person loses. That’s the unpleasant nature of the world in which we live.

When we engage in competition, such as when the Ohio State football team plays against the Michigan football team, both teams are competing against each other for the same thing: the victory. Only one of the two teams will walk away the winner. Do you think it’d be wise for the teams to share their weaknesses with one another? Not at all. They would compromise their ability to achieve the victory. If either team realizes the other team’s weaknesses, they will exploit those weaknesses as much as possible because the end goal is not to be nice to each other, but to win the game.

The competition for authority is exactly the same. It’s a battle between two or more people for authority over the same things. Sharing our weaknesses, also known as our messes, gives the opposition something to exploit in their fight against us for the authority prize. And believe me, they will exploit it. We see it during every election season.

So what’s the cost of vulnerability to a person who wants authority? Authority. The greater the amount of authority, the greater the cost. The cost of a low-level manager losing his position is less than the cost of a megachurch pastor losing his position which is less than the cost of the President losing his position. When authoritative figures are vulnerable, they are at risk of losing their authority, a cost which to many of them is greater than the loss of relational connection associated with their invulnerability.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I think many of us desire to have deeper relational connections with the people who have authority over us such as our bosses, pastors, and our government officials. And somehow we realize that vulnerability plays an important role in deepening these relationships.

But I think we have to realize that there’s a great cost associated with vulnerability for authoritative figures. All it takes is one person, either maliciously or accidentally betraying them, to end their career and take away their authority. I haven’t concluded that the decision to remain invulnerable is necessarily a good decision, but contemplating this topic has given me a deeper understanding of why people with authority tend to remain relationally distant from others and I hope it’s done the same for you.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think people with authority have a lot at stake to be vulnerable? Can you think of an authoritative figure in your life who has demonstrated high levels of vulnerability? In a game of “Would You Rather,” would you rather have authority or be relationally connected with other people?

[1] Matthew 8:9.

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