This piece was adapted from my latest book The Laws of Human Nature.
In the world today, we humans have become more self-absorbed, more tribal and tenacious in holding on to our narrow agendas; we have become consumed by the barrage of information inundating us; we are even more fickle when it comes to leaders. And so, the need for true figures of authority — with an elevated perspective, a high attunement to the group, and a feel for what unifies it — has never been greater. And because of that, we are tasked with establishing our authority and assuming such a necessary role.
Remember that the essence of authority is that people willingly follow your lead. They choose to adhere to your words and advice. They want your wisdom. Certainly at times you may have to use force, rewards and punishments, and inspiring speeches. It is only a matter of degree. The less your need of such devices, the greater your authority. And so, you must think of continually striving to engage people’s willpower, and overcome their natural resistances and ambivalence.
That is what the following strategies are designed to do. Put them all into practice.
1) Find your authority style — Authenticity
The authority you establish must emerge naturally from your character, from the particular strengths you possess. Think of certain archetypes of authority: one of them suits you best. A notable archetype is the Deliverer, such as Moses or Martin Luther King, an individual determined to deliver people from evil. Deliverers have an acute dislike of any kind of injustice, particularly those that affect the group they identify with. They have so much conviction, and most often a way with words, that people are drawn to them.
Another archetype would be the Founder. These are the ones who establish a new order in politics or business. They generally have a keen sense of trends and a great aversion to the status quo. They are unconventional and independent-minded. Their greatest joy is to tinker and invent something new. Many people naturally rally to the side of Founders, because they represent some form of progress. Related to this archetype would be the Visionary Artist, such as Pablo Picasso or the jazz artist John Coltrane or the film director David Lynch. These artists learn the conventions in their field and then turn them upside down. They crave some new style and they create it. With their skill, they always find an audience and followers.
Other archetypes could include the Truth Seeker (people who have no tolerance for lies and politicking); the Quiet Pragmatist (they want nothing more than to fix things that are broken, and have infinite patience); the Healer (they have a knack for finding what will fulfill and unify people); the Teacher (they have a way of getting people to initiate action and learn from their mistakes). You must identify with one of these archetypes, or any others that are noticeable in culture.
2) Focus outwardly — the Attitude
We humans are self-absorbed by nature, and spend most of our time focusing inwardly on our emotions, on our wounds, on our fantasies. You want to develop the habit of reversing this as much as possible. You do this in three ways. First, you hone your listening skills, absorbing yourself in the words and nonverbals of others. You train yourself to read between the lines of what people are saying. You attune yourself to their moods and their needs, and sense what they are missing. You do not take people’s smiles and approving looks for reality, but rather sense the underlying tension or fascination.
Second, you dedicate yourself to earning people’s respect. You do not feel entitled to it; your focus is not on your feelings and what people owe you because of your position and greatness (an inward turn). You earn any respect by respecting their individual needs and by proving that you are working for the greater good. Third, you consider being a leader as a tremendous responsibility, the welfare of the group hanging on your every decision. What drives you is not getting attention, but bringing about the best results possible for the most people. You absorb yourself in the work, not your ego. You feel a deep and visceral connection to the group, seeing your fate and theirs as deeply intertwined.
If you exude this attitude people will feel it, and it will open them up to your influence. They will be drawn to you by the simple fact that it is rare to encounter a person so sensitive to people’s moods and focused so supremely on results. This will make you stand out from the crowd, and in the end you will gain far more attention this way than by signaling your desperate need to be popular and liked.
3) Cultivate the Third Eye — the Vision
In 401 B.C., 10,000 Greek mercenary soldiers, fighting on behalf of the Persian prince Darius in his attempt to take over the empire from the king, his brother, suddenly found themselves on the losing side of the battle, and now trapped deep in the heart of Persia. When the victorious Persians tricked the leaders of the mercenaries to come to a meeting to discuss their fate and then executed them all, it became clear to the surviving soldiers that they would either be executed as well or sold into slavery, by the next day. That night they wandered through their camp bemoaning their fate.
Among them was the writer Xenophon, who had gone along with the soldiers as a kind of roving reporter. Xenophon had studied philosophy as a student of Socrates. He believed in the supremacy of rational thinking, of seeing the entire picture, the general idea behind the fleeting appearances of daily life. He had practiced such thinking skills over several years.
That night he had a vision of how the Greeks could escape their trap and return home. He saw them moving swiftly and stealthily through Persia, sacrificing everything for speed. He saw them leaving right away, using the element of surprise to gain some distance. He thought ahead — of the terrain, the route to take, the many enemies they would face, how they could help and use citizens who revolted against the Persians. He saw them getting rid of their wagons, living off the land and moving quickly, even in winter. In the space of a few hours, he had conjured up the details of the retreat, all inspired by his overall vision of their fast, zigzag route to the Mediterranean and home.
Although he had no military experience, his vision was so complete, and he communicated it with such confidence, that the soldiers nominated him their de facto leader. It took several years and many ensuing challenges, each time Xenophon applying his global vision to determine a strategy, but in the end, he proved the power of such rational thinking by leading them to safety despite the immense odds against them.
This story embodies the essence of all authority and the most essential element in establishing it. Most people are locked in the moment. They are prone to overreacting and panicking, to seeing only a narrow part of the reality facing the group. They cannot entertain alternative ideas or prioritize. Those who maintain their presence of mind and elevate their perspective above the moment tap into the visionary powers of the human mind, and cultivate that third eye for unseen forces and trends. They stand out from the group, fulfill the true function of leadership, and create the aura of authority by seeming to possess the godlike ability to read the future. And this is a power that can be practiced and developed, and applied to any situation.
4) Lead from the front — the Tone
As the leader, you must be seen working as hard or even harder than everyone else. You set the highest standards for yourself. You are consistent and accountable. If there are sacrifices that need to be made, you are the first to make them for the good of the group. This sets the proper tone. The members will feel compelled to raise themselves up to your level and gain your approval, much like Elizabeth’s ministers. They will internalize your values and subtly imitate you. You will not have to yell and lecture them to make them work harder. They will want to.
It is important that you set this tone from the beginning. First impressions are critical. If you try later on to show you want to lead from the front, it will look forced and lack credibility. Equally important is to show some initial toughness; if people get the impression early on that they can maneuver you, they will do so mercilessly. You set limits that are fair. If members don’t rise to the high levels you uphold, you punish them. Your tone in speaking or writing is peremptory and bold. People always respect strength in the leader, as long as it does not stir up fears of the abuse of power. If such toughness is not natural to you, develop it or you will not last long enough. You will always have plenty of time to reveal that softer, kinder side that is really you, but if you start soft, you signal a pushover.
Begin this early on in your career by developing the highest possible standards for your own work (see the next section for more on this), and by training yourself to be constantly aware of how your manner and tone affects people in the subtlest of ways.
5) Stir conflicting emotions — the Aura
Most people are too predictable. To mix well in social situations, they assume a persona that is consistent — jovial, pleasing, bold, sensitive. They try to hide other qualities that they are afraid to show. As the leader, you want to be more mysterious, to establish a presence that fascinates people. By sending mixed signals, by showing qualities that are ever so slightly contrary, you cause people to pause in their instant categorizations, and to think of who you really are. The more they think of you, the larger and more authoritative your presence.
So, for instance, you are generally kind and sensitive, but you show an undertone of harshness, of intolerance towards certain types of behavior. This is the pose of parents, who demonstrate their love while indicating limits and boundaries. The child is trapped between affection and a touch of fear, and from that tension comes respect. In general, try to keep your bursts of anger or recriminations as infrequent as possible. Because you are mostly quiet and empathetic, when your anger flares, it really stands out and has the power to make people truly intimidated and contrite.
You can mix prudence with an undertone of a boldness that you occasionally display. You deliberate long on problems, but once a decision is made you act with great energy and audacity. Such boldness comes out of nowhere and creates a strong impression. Or, you can blend the spiritual with an undertone of earthy pragmatism. Those were the paradoxical qualities of Martin Luther King that fascinated people. Or you can be folksy and regal, like Queen Elizabeth I. Or you can blend the masculine and the feminine.
Develop this aura early on, as a way to enthrall people. Do not make the mix too strong, or you will seem insane. It is an undertone that makes people wonder in a good way. It is not a question of faking qualities you do not have, but rather of bringing out more of your natural complexity.
6) Never appear to take, always to give — the Taboo
Taking something from people they have assumed they possessed — money, rights or privileges, time that is their own — creates a basic insecurity and will call into question your authority and all the credit you have amassed. You make the members of the group feel uncertain about the future, in a most visceral manner. You stir up doubts about your legitimacy as a leader: “What more will you take? Are you abusing the power that you have? Have you been fooling us all along?” Even the hint of this will harm your reputation. If sacrifices are necessary, you are the first to make them, and they are not simply symbolic. Try and frame any loss of resources or privileges as temporary, and make it clear how quickly you will restore them. Follow the path of Queen Elizabeth I and make husbanding of resources your primary concern so that you never end up in this position. Make it so that you can afford to be generous.
Related to this, you must avoid over-promising to people. In the moment, it might feel good to let them hear of the great things you will do for them, but people generally have an acute memory of promises, and if you fail to deliver, it will stick in their mind, even if you try to blame others or circumstances. If this happens a second time, your authority begins to sharply erode. Not giving what you promised to deliver will feel like something you have taken away. Everyone can talk a good game and promise, and so you seem like just anyone else we encounter and the disappointment can be profound.
7) Rejuvenate your authority — Adaptability
Your authority will grow with each action that inspires trust and respect. It gives you the luxury to remain in power long enough to realize great projects. But as you get older, the authority you established can become rigid and stodgy. You become the father figure who starts to seem oppressive by how long he has monopolized power, no matter how deeply people admired him in the past. A new generation inevitably emerges that is immune to your charm, to the aura you have created. They see you as a relic. You also have the tendency as you get older to become ever so slightly intolerant and tyrannical, as you cannot help but expect people to follow you. Without being aware, you start to feel entitled and people sense this. Besides, the public wants newness and fresh faces.
The first step in avoiding this danger is to maintain the kind of sensitivity that Elizabeth displayed throughout her life, noting the moods behind people’s words, gauging the effect you have on newcomers and young people. Losing that empathy should be your greatest fear, as you will begin to cocoon yourself in your great reputation.
The second step is to look for new markets and audiences to appeal to, which will force you to adapt. If possible, expand the reach of your authority. Without making a fool of yourself by attempting to appeal to a younger crowd that you cannot really understand, try to alter your style somewhat with the passing years. In the arts, this has been the secret to success of people like Pablo Picasso, or Alfred Hitchcock, or Coco Chanel. Such flexibility in those who are in their fifties and beyond will give you a touch of the divine and immortal — your spirit remains alive and open, and your authority is renewed.
This piece was adapted from my newest book The Laws of Human Nature, now available everywhere books are sold. The Laws of Human Nature was six years in the making and is the culmination of my life’s study of power, psychology, and history. Click here to learn more.