Historic Gigster - Authority Should not Require Coercion

Former dictators Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Augusto Pinochet of Chili, and Muammar Gaddafi of Lybia.

Former dictators Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Augusto Pinochet of Chili, and Muammar Gaddafi of Lybia.

I’ve recently started re-reading my college textbooks. I majored in Political Science and many of the books I kept from so many years ago still have relevance today. In one of these books I came upon an essay from Hannah Arendt called “On Violence” that I remember had a significant impact on me. Arendt’s thoughts on power, authority, and leadership ring true today at many levels, from international relations in the world today to the fabric of our relationships in the office.

The True Nature of Power

Having fled Nazi Germany as a Jew and then having witnessed the rise of repressive socialist and Fascist states during the cold war, Arendt was primarily interested in totalitarian power. However, her descriptions can equally be applied to the idea of authority, which is the focus of this article. Regarding power she wrote:

Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power's disappearance.

I distinctly remember that the first time I read it, immersed as I was in the political events of the 1980s that I was studying at the time, I was floored by this idea about power. It laid bare the notion that an authoritarian regime was little more than a house of cards if not supported by the violent repression to back it up. This explained how the Iron Curtain had come down so quickly and the Latin American Juntas had floundered one after the other. It also offered hope that the new regimes springing up in the Middle East would be temporary as well.

Now Arendt’s idea is not exactly new, it echoes similar ideas by contemporary authors (Ursula K. Le Guin) and thinkers before her (Diderot, Dostoyevsky). I’m sure if I searched deep enough, I’d find hints of this idea in ancient Roman and Greek texts as well. However, this was a new concept to me. Perhaps it was the many political events around me that open my mind to it, but my Junior year in college was the first time the idea made an impression on me.

The Lesson

As I was thumbing through my old college textbooks, I sat down to read Arendt’s essay once more. As I read, I thought of the new authoritarian leaders that are coming to power in Brazil, Hungary, China, Russia, and also closer to home. Just as Arendt’s essay gave me hope for change in those places where new authoritarian regimes were appearing in the 1980s, I am now also hopeful about the world around me today.

As I pondered this notion a bit more, though, I also saw parallels much closer to home. People who have authority over us in our places of work, in places of worship, in educational institutions, and in our own families often also rely on coercion to maintain control over us. It isn’t exactly the crushing blow of a police baton, but it takes more subtle forms like the withholding of vacation time, bathroom breaks, or privileges around the home.

The fact is that those who insist the most on being respected, obeyed, or listened to in our own lives do so because of a lack of legitimate power. If they actually did have real authority, they would not have to insist on it, or use coercive methods to maintain it.

Applying the Lesson

For those of us running our own businesses, we typically find ourselves in a position of authority. Whether we manage employees, part-time contractors, or our own family members, we need to keep in mind the lesson from Hannah Arendt. Our authority over the people we manage should not stem from our reliance on coercive means. We may find that such methods may provide temporary compliance, but it is seldom lasting. More likely than not, the perceived authority gained from compliance is likely only an illusion and may actually undermine future management interactions.

No form of coercion is a lasting source of power. This includes raising one’s voice, cursing or berating employees. This is especially the case when done in front of others. Throughout history, authoritarians and despots have made examples of subjects who disobey their orders by making the punishments public. It may have worked for a few of them, but most didn’t last. In today’s places of work, the practice is even more damaging – not only does public shaming and punishment betray a lack of power over the person being punished, but it demonstrates this fact to all who witness it as well.


Power and authority should be seen as the opposites of violence and coercion. Being an effective leader requires an understanding of that fact. Tyrants throughout history have done their best to hide this simple fact. When Hannah Arendt started to publish her writings, they were banned in Russia and other authoritarian states because they constituted a threat to their legitimacy.

This was a clear indication that these states lacked actual power and authority. Over time, they crumbled and were replaced with more legitimate forms of government that did not require violence or coercion to subsist. The same is true for management at companies you may be working for today, or if you are the one in charge, how this may be manifested in your management of your own employees.

The more that such a structure persists, the more it relies on hiding the truth about its own illegitimacy. Hiding basic truths behind a veil of utilitarianism then becomes the goal of the coercion. To quote Hannah Arendt:

One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.

This article was simultaneously published in The Gigster 'Zine!, a monthly newsletter by the Colégas Group. To sign up for your own copy of the newsletter in your in-box, click here.

Colegas Group