My son and I have just watched the 2015 film “The Stanford Prison Experiment”. Both of us came away with a lot of food for thought in regards to what we should or shouldn’t learn from such an experiment.

In brief, a group of volunteer students were assigned roles of either guards or prisoners by the flip of a coin. The experiment was last 14 days but was stopped after 6 days because of the questionable treatment of the guards on the prisoners including psychological torture. Whilst there are some issues over the validity of the experiment in regards to how it was undertaken I still think it produces a relevant discussion for us in the world of business.

What do we mean by authority and leadership?

To start with, let’s switch from the prison scenario to the work scenario so of course I will be referring to managers and employees and hopefully, none of our workplaces resemble prisons (unless we actually work in one!) and the extreme behaviours / environment presented will be substantially different however, there are considerations and concepts that we can learn from this experiment.

First of all, let’s get some definitions laid down:


“the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience”


“the action of leading a group of people or an organization.”

Although my favourite comment on what is leadership is from

Bennis (1994)

“To an extent, leadership is like beauty; it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it”.

We know leaders have authority, they must have to provide the direction and hold the attention of their employees but, we also know that leaders who depend solely on their authority tend not to be as successful as those that have authority but rely on their other leadership qualities. This is proven by the fact that we often cite that people are leaders within their teams, not because of the authority but because of the qualities that they endow.

From this we would say that leadership is far more complicated than authority but then when we see that there are 18 different types of authority then maybe they are not so different after all.

  1. Academic

Being knowledgeable in your field

  • Charismatic

Personality based – people are inspired to follow you (Charismatic Leadership)

  • Expert

What it says on the tin! – you have the expertise in this field

  • Founder

As it sounds, you are an “original” in the company

  • Legal-governing

You have an official position within the company

  • Organisational-position

Often a temporary position regarding short term projects

  • Ownership

As the owner they have the authority to make the decisions

  • Prophetic

More religious in connotation – vision, teacher based

  • Punitive

You can assert your authority through “punishment”

  1. Rational-Legal

Based on rationality and legality (Bureaucratic Authority)

  1. Relational

You have connections across the business – a real networker

  1. Results

You get the job done, for your targets and for the business

  1. Reverent

This is about how you behave towards your people, authority is earned by your conduct

  1. Reward

You reward good performance / behaviour

  1. Spiritual

A religious-based authority

  1. Tenured

Has great experience and therefore uses that to introduce good ideas

  1. Traditional

Acquired through custom or tradition

  1. Voting

Authority bestowed by voting

Looking through this list we can pick put types of authority that we may also associate with leadership but really these are all types of leadership but whether or not that translates into good leadership is something else.

Back to the experiment, the prisoners has no say in who the guards were and the guards were persuaded to use the punitive style of authority although they apparently took it to an extreme.

In the workplace, we don’t elect managers, we employ them or promote them and more often than not because of their expertise in the job they are managing – that probably “ticks” 4 styles – tenured, results, expert and academic. These are very good reasons to offer authority but they don’t attend to some of the other elements of authority which would make a manager a leader and that is the more bestowed elements of authority – Reward, reverent, relational and charismatic.

Authority places power upon a manager, leadership qualities encourage the team to agree and bestow that power upon their manager

This is why the above definitions of authority can be easily categorised into the five-base model of power introduced by French & Raven (1958)

Kurt Lewin’s Leadership styles


This involves employee involvement and employee voice policies. It isn’t about asking for permission but it is about taking decisions that will seek the expertise of the people on the “coal-face”. It engenders trust and respect and will mean that people are more likely to be engaged in the decision that has been made.

However, it takes time and therefore does not align with the faster decisions that are sometimes needed.


You take the decision because of the assumption that you are in charge and you know best. It is very much a parent-child relationship and relies very much on your position of power and management credentials. This style is quick and provided you are consistent in your decision making will provide consistent decisions.

However, excluding the team will lose on many of the leadership authority styles that promote loyalty and engagement.


Theoretically, this is the pinnacle of leadership. We train and empower our people to work independently and therefore you can trust them to undertake their roles successfully. This form of leadership touches many of the authority styles and therefore could be seen as the ideal.

However, too much delegation of decision making can sometimes cause the manager to become remote and invisible and this can allow a lack of organisation and slip in performance.


As with many things the conclusion is a balance.

There does need to be a power-based authority but in addition to that there needs to be an element of bestowed authority from the employees.

Power-based is easily gained through promotions or employment but the behavioural stuff is a lot more difficult to acquire and has to be earned. As business owners, this is why we have to train our managers in the behavioural side of leadership.

They need to inspire, motivate and understand that different leadership styles are appropriate at different times and they have to identify those scenarios and apply – Situational Leadership.

Many of the best leaders are humble and inspire loyalty and therefore we could conclude that the behavioural side is much more important than the power-based.

Power-based will work but often only in the short-term or whilst that manager’s natural strengths resolve the issues at hand. For example, Winston Churchill is cited as one of the best leaders of our time but, is that because he was the perfect person for that time? I would suggest yes, as he his political career in peace time was very unsettled.

Back to the original experiment.

Authority has to be bestowed but to be successful there also has to be parameters of behaviour and an expected code of conduct. Not because we are all naturally programmed to become power-crazed dictators but, because when we read that list of authority styles, punitive is probably the most uncomfortable and will inspire disloyalty, rebellion and a toxic workplace.


13th May 2021

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