After reading this article you will learn about:- 1. Meaning of Authority 2. Features of Authority 3. Types 4. Accountability 5. Limitations.

Meaning of Authority:

Authority is the right to carry out the assigned tasks (responsibilities). It is the power to issue directions, allocate resources, make decisions, command people etc. Authority is the power of the position to communicate decisions that have to be effectively carried out by the subordinates. In simple terms, authority is the right of a person to give instructions to subordinates.

Authority is the right to perform or command. It allows its holder to act in certain designated ways and to directly influence the actions of others through orders.

It also allows its holder to allocate the resources to achieve organisational objectives.


Authority, is “the right in a position (and, through it, the right of the person occupying the position) to exercise discretion in making decisions affecting others.”

— Koontz and Weihrich

It is “the organisation’s legitimized power that is linked to each position within the organisation. It typically involves the right to command, to perform, to make decisions and to expend resources.” — Pearce and Robinson

Authority is, thus, the power enjoyed by a person to influence the subordinates, to direct them to work. It is derived by virtue of the position he holds in the organisation.


“Authority conditions the actions and behaviour of every management member in an enterprise and is the common cord tying together the various organisation units, thus, making possible the very existence of the organisation and the effective working together of all personnel.”

Authority binds organisational members and motivates them to work towards the common goal.

Features of Authority:

Authority is characterised by the following features:

1. It is the right of a person, given by his superior, to issue instructions to subordinates. It regulates the behaviour of subordinates in the desired direction.


2. It is the right of making decisions and getting them implemented within the constraints of organisational resources, rules and regulations.

3. It is related to position that a person holds in the organisation. It is, thus, legitimate right of a person to give orders.

4. It is exercised to achieve organisational objectives. Unless it is goal-oriented, it carries no or little meaning. It aims at getting the right things done at the right time.

5. It is a force used to coordinate the activities of individuals and departments of the organisation.


6. Depending on the source from where authority originates, it may flow from top to bottom or bottom to top.

Types of Authority:

There can be three types of authority:

1. Line Authority,

2. Staff Authority, and 


3. Functional Authority.

Each type of authority exists to enable individuals to carry out the different types of responsibilities assigned to them.

1. Line authority:

Line authority is exercised by line managers. It flows from top to bottom. Every manager directs subordinates to carry his orders thereby creating superior-subordinate relationships (scalar chain). All orders flow from top to bottom and obedience to orders flows from bottom to top. Formal communication channels are created and responsibilities for carrying out the tasks are fixed.


Line authority is the most fundamental authority within an organisation that reflects the superior-subordinate relationships. It consists of the right to make decisions and give orders concerning the production, sales or finance related behaviour of subordinates. People directly responsible for these areas within the organisation are delegated line authority to assist them in performing their obligatory activities.

Managers exercise line authority by virtue of their position in the hierarchy. It is the right to issue orders to get the decisions implemented by people down the hierarchy. This authority is exercised to achieve the organisational goals. Though ultimate authority rests with the top managers, it is delegated to middle and lower level managers, thus, forming a chain of command or scalar chain.

2. Staff authority:

Staff authority consists of the right to advise or assist those who possess line authority as well as staff personnel. This authority is exercised by staff specialists who do not form part of the official hierarchs. Units which provide advisory function to line managers have the staff authority, for example, legal or judiciary advice given to managers by legal advisors.


With increase in size of the organisations, line managers find it difficult to deal with complex, changing situations. Staff specialists, thus, counsel, assist and advise the line managers on various matters. The authority they exercise is the staff authority.

Staff experts exercise this authority on the basis of their knowledge, skill and competence.

Line and staff personnel must work together closely to maintain the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation. To ensure that line and staff personnel work together productively, management must make sure that both groups understand the organisational mission, have specific objectives, and realize that they are partners in helping the organisation reach its objectives.

3. Functional authority:

Functional authority consists of the right to give orders within a segment of the organisation in which this right is normally non-existent. This authority is usually assigned to individuals to complement the line or staff authority they already possess.

Functional authority generally covers only specific task areas and is operational only for designated time periods. It is given to individuals who, in order to meet responsibilities in their own areas, must be able to exercise some control over organisational members in other areas.


Every departmental head controls the activities of his department and is assisted by various staff specialists in doing so. The staff specialists do not have line authority over people of line departments but they are experts in their area of specialisation and exercise authority (over managers of other departments) on account of their expertise and competence. This is known as functional authority.

Four basic functions of an organisation are production, finance, personnel and marketing. Every functional head exercises direct authority (line authority) over people of his department and is assisted by staff specialists in exercising this authority. Accounting and R&D departments, for example, help in working of the production department.

They also exercise authority over people of other departments. This authority is known as functional authority. Both line and staff managers exercise functional authority. Finance manager, for example, holds direct authority over people of finance department (line authority) and also controls financial activities of other departments (functional authority); the staff specialist, the accounting manager, for example, who is closely associated with the finance department also has formal authority over line managers of other departments.

He can ask production, sales and personnel departments to maintain accounts with respect to their departmental activities. He can also check their accounts and, thus, exercise functional authority. This is true of other staff specialists also. Thus, both line and staff specialists exercise functional authority over people of their departments and other departments.

Max Weber defined three types of legitimate authority which also correspond to three types of dominance or leadership.

These are:


(a) Traditional authority,

(b) Rational- Legal, and 

(c) Charismatic authority.

Each type of authority is legitimate and one who can successfully claim any of these types of authority is regarded as having the right to compel obedience from the followers:

(a) Traditional authority:

The appeal to tradition is the most common form of authority. People obey traditional authority because “It has always been that way.”


The right of the boss to rule is not open to question. People obey the boss because they know that doing so in past has given order and continuity to the organisation. Thus, besides mere tradition alone, stability of the social order is also important for acceptance of this authority.

In a system based on traditional authority, power is legitimized by ancient customs. The authority of the boss is generally accepted as unwritten laws. Tribal leaders and monarchs have always relied on traditional authority. From the historical point of view, it has been the most common source of legitimate power.

Traditional authority tends to be more common in organisations which stress upon continuity with the past and the upholding of widely shared values and beliefs, for example, established churches, the higher reaches of government, the courts etc.

People do not question this authority relationship as they tend to follow the tradition for it has always been followed in the past. Disobeying this authority and doing things otherwise would create more problems than it would solve.

(b) Rational-legal authority:

In this kind of authority, power is legitimized by explicit rule and procedures that define the rights and obligations of the superiors. Such rules and procedures are commonly found in the official rule books. Legal-rational authority stresses on written laws and not competence of people. Officials can exercise power only within legally defined limits that have been formally conferred on them.


In this kind of authority, power is respected and complied because the followers are bound by the legitimacy of law. The legitimacy of authority is derived from respect for the legality of power. Weber described such authority with reference to bureaucratic content of organisational format. Legal authority is best represented by bureaucracy.

The basic idea is that laws can be enacted and changed by formally designed procedures. The governing body is appointed and works for the organisation as a whole and not for specific sections. The organisations where rational-legal authority is exercised are known as rational organisations.

(c) Charismatic authority:

“In a system based on charismatic authority, power is legitimized by the unusual, exceptional or even supernatural qualities that people attribute to particular political, religious, or military leaders.” Weber called this extraordinary quality ‘ Charisma’.

These have been many leaders with the quality of ‘Charisma’, like Jesus Christ, M.K. Gandhi, Hitler, Napoleon etc.

“The charismatic leader is seen as a person of destiny who is inspired by unsocial lofty principles or even by God. The charisma of these leaders is itself sufficient to make their authority seem legitimate to their followers”. — Ian Robertson


Authority of tradition is the rule and authority of charisma is an exception. Weber used the term “charismatic authority” to refer to exception where people follow the leader with unexceptional qualities of connecting competence, personality, magical ability, revelation of heroism, power of the mind and the speech.

The important feature of charismatic authority is that the leader is not magical but he is believed to be so by followers. The leader creates a group of true believers and gets their perpetual support.

Though charismatic authority is effective, this is usually unstable in nature. It has no rules of traditions to guide the employees since it is based on the unique qualities of particular individual. It is undetermined if the leader fails to have the charismatic qualities. Authority may fail if leaders lack the reason and qualities. Thus, systems based on charismatic authority are usually short lived.

Accountability of Authority:

When authority is delegated for tasks assigned to subordinates, delegators remain ultimately responsible for the results obtained. They remain answerable to their bosses for success and failure of the subordinates. Their answerability to people up the organisational hierarchy holds them accountable for the tasks and authority delegated to subordinates.

Accountability is the same as ultimate responsibility of managers. A person becomes accountable for final results of subordinates when there are pre-determined standards against which results are evaluated.

Accountability is the obligation that the work must be done within the stated standards of performance. It maintains the responsibility of the superior or the delegator.

Louis A. Allen defines accountability as “the obligation to carry out responsibility and exercise authority in terms of performance standards established”.

It is “the requirement to provide satisfactory reasons for significant deviations from duties or expected results”.

It is “the obligation to account for, and report upon, the discharge of responsibility or use of authority”.

Accountability cannot be delegated. It vests with top authorities who remain liable for actions of their subordinates. They cannot be held liable for the tasks not assigned to subordinates. Thus, while authority flows downwards, from top managers to workers, accountability flows upwards, where each level is accountable to the superior who delegates him the authority. The ultimate accountability is held by the person who initiates the process of delegation.

Limitations of Authority:

Though formal theory of authority holds good in practice, informal theories co-exist with the formal authority. The authority of line managers to increase the working hours may be resented by the workers. Acceptance of authority is, thus, not demanded by superiors, rather it is commanded from subordinates. It is, therefore, evident that managers exercise authority (whatever the source) within the limited area of discretion.

Various factors limiting the scope of authority are:

1. Capacity of subordinates:

If subordinates cannot work due to their physical and mental limitations, managers cannot issue directions to that effect. If a worker is asked to perform the duties of a foreman or a first line supervisor and he finds himself incapable of doing so, orders issued to that effect shall not be effective.

2. Overall organisational goals:

Directions against the organisational goals will not be carried out by subordinates.

3. Legal restrictions:

Every organisation is bound by a legal framework of rules and procedures. As requirement of the Companies Act, a company cannot issue shares more than its authorized capital. Any directive issued against the rule shall not be complied with.

4. Social factors:

People collectively work in the organisation and form groups on the basis of their social values and cultures. Orders issued against these values have limited acceptance.

5. Personal limitations:

Not only should managers take care of physical limitations of their subordinates while exercising authority, they should also keep in mind their own limitations in carrying out certain activities. Something that a manager cannot do himself, he should not expect from his subordinates also.