Three Types of Legitimate Authority – Max Weber

The three types of legitimate authority are concepts created by Max Weber, a German economist and sociologist. According to Weber, legitimacy of a system of domination contributes to the systems stability and authority. Weber defines three major types of legitimate authority: legal or rational, traditional, and charismatic. These three forms show how it is possible for some people to exercise power over others.

Legal or rational authority is rooted in rules that have been legally established. In legal or rational authority, a system of legal rules are use to guide all members of the group. This practice is followed by all levels of the hierarchy from the superiors to the subordinate. The persons appointed at the top are elected into that position by following legal procedures and are expected to follow the legal rules to limit their power. These legal rules usually develop over time as the needs of the group change.
This form of authority is most effective in modern corporate culture. The structure in place creates checks and balances amongst all levels so that one party does not venture off onto their own agenda. Policies are enacted to ensure that employees within the company adhere to methodologies created to guide that company’s performance and success.
Western world government is much known for their use of legal or rational authority. Having a structure in place that is based on laws to govern all hierarchical levels ensures that members are adhering to a concise format of governing.
Traditional authority is mainly based on traditions of the past. Groups under this structure feel that their guidance is based on the sanctity of age-old custom and influence. Unlike legal or rational authority, traditional authority is not governed by rules, but is usually inherited with historical ties. Traditional authority has existed around the world since the beginning of documented time.
A modern-day form of this authority still exists in the UK, with the Queen of England appointed in top control. However, the governing powers have since moved to legal or rational authority.
One could say that your typical traditional family encompasses traditional authority in that it is customary for the man of the house to provide the structure and guidance within that family.
For many years, businesses have been comprised of leaders put into place by their Fathers, relatives or close friends. We tend to still see this traditional authority in smaller companies where there is little need for legal or rational authority.
Charismatic authority is based on the idea that one is in a position of power due to his or her magnetism. That is, his or her charisma is a quality that is considered extraordinary. The collections of people that would consider this person to be their leader are at times called disciples or followers. These followers may consider their leader to be gifted with supernatural or superhuman powers or qualities. In reality, the true presence of these powers are irrelevant, it is the fact that the followers believe these qualities to be true is what is important. Devoted members are usually appointed into positions of power within this structure based on their own charisma and devotion to the person seen to be in charge.
Jim Jones would be considered a leader with charismatic authority. In 1978 the members of the People’s Temple followed Jim Jones to their own demise in the belief that he held the key to their salvation.
In corporations today, usually a person that exudes charisma becomes a leader that is easily elevated into top positions and followed with a high amount of respect. However, these charismatic executives are still expected to follow the legal or rational authority set in place by the company that they represent.