They use both concepts with the purpose of describing the leadership style of the person in relation to a particular action or situation. “The authoritarian prime minister has disdained democratic norms and procedures.” “The majority of the residents are dissatisfied with the authoritative mayor’s unwillingness to initiate a consultation process.” In both cases, the adjective is made to convey negative connotations. In both cases, the journalist blames the prime minister or the mayor for asserting his authority in the public sphere. 

Alert and well-informed citizens might raise questions about the legitimacy of the adjective appended to the public function. For my part, I would rather express my strong reservation about the indiscriminate use of these concepts and the ignorance of their true meanings.

My Fowler’s Modern English Usage brings out forcefully the difference between these two terms. “The differentiation is complete: authoritarian means favourable to the principle of authority as opposed to that of individual freedom; authoritative means possessing due and acknowledged authority.” We may use both adjectives for a person, his action, and the result of the action. We may then speak of the introduction of an authoritarian law or of the authoritative interpretation of this law. Although the difference is obvious, the word authoritative is nowadays either cast out or used in the sense of authoritarian. For instance, a careless writer tends to say, wrongly of course, that an authoritative political system resembles a benign dictatorship.

In his excellent study on authority and critical freedom, the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer aptly pointed out that the word authoritarian was introduced and frequently used in the early part of the 20th century. An authoritarian political regime, such as the Nazi or Communist dictatorship, favoured or reinforced strict obedience to an authority and suppressed any claim to individual freedom. Understandably, the concept authority, from which the word authoritarian derives, accrued negative connotations. In contrast, the usage of the authoritative is not bound to a specific segment of history; it has “timelessly valid meaning.” Here, authority is regarded as a positive form of relation.

An authoritative person often plays an esteemed role in various social contexts. Well-meaning and open-minded parents recognize the authority of teachers as something essential for the success of their children. Likewise, intelligent students realize how much they benefit, day after day, from the competence and passion of their teachers and, therefore, they gladly submit themselves to their authority. University professors praise authoritative scholars because, thanks to their erudition and writing style, they are able to develop a lifelong interest for a particular field of learning.

But let us turn our attention to the authority enjoyed and recognized by authoritative leaders. What appears central and immediately manifest is the understanding by authoritative leaders of their authority. Their power and influence are not based on a title or a role, on the formal authority bestowed by an institution. In other words, they do not need to insist on their authority in order to act with authority and to elicit recognition of this authority. Indeed, anyone compelled to self-assert competence in this sense has already lost his authority. The authority of genuine leaders is immediately recognized and valued by the presence, knowledge, and wisdom of restraint exhibited by the leader.

As we listen to their words or watch their actions, we become fully attentive to their magnetic presence. We come across a spiritual quality – inner strength, authenticity, or vivacity; we perceive it even when their bodies are weak or fragile. Their convincing personality becomes manifest in the movements of their hands, in the tone of their voices, and, above all, in the look of their eyes. What radiates in the eyes or is brought forth through the hands is not merely what a person has achieved, possessed, or learned but, essentially, what that person actually is. The voice of a person, relating a personal experience or expressing a desire, is an intimation of inner disposition: it may express an active and stimulating creative force, which often exerts a positive influence on all those who come into a contact with him.

Beyond this spiritual quality, authoritative leaders are recognized for their ability, insight, and competence. Demands and expectations are addressed to them because of their confirmed proficiency in certain domains. Members of an orchestra gladly follow the conductor who excels at knowing the overall emotional quality of the piece and the musical style of the composer. A director of a research institute enjoys the esteem of his team due to his proven record of scientific activity and accomplishment and to his ability to obtain substantial funds for the further development of research projects. In many similar cases – deans working with their presidents or athletes interacting with their coaches – authority is valued as an indispensable factor of achievement. Operational managers turn to CEOs for advice; their request is prompted by the recognition of their leader’s superior knowledge and expertise.

Once this superiority is recognized and sometimes even admired, the person holding an authority lives inevitably with the temptation of acting in an authoritarian manner. Anyone who has accepted a leading position feels, occasionally, the inclination to stress his formal or institutional authority and to constrain dissenting voices. However, such a desire to leave no room for adverse opinions dispels the foundation of genuine authority. Therefore, another distinguishing character of an authoritative leader is the ability to recognize the freedom of others to criticize him. As Gadamer remarked, “there is, in truth no real opposition between authority and critical freedom, but, rather, a deep interconnection.”

The freedom granted to others involves the leader’s awareness of his own freedom. This freedom consists, above all, in setting limits to one’s own authority and treating one’s knowledge and ability with a critical attitude, with the wisdom of restraint. This critical freedom towards oneself manifests itself in the acts of questioning and of seeking counsel from collaborators. The leader admit his ignorance concerning certain important matters and acknowledge the positive contributions offered by others. The ability to enable others to express their insights and critical remarks and to suggest corrective and creative ideas is perhaps the most persuasive feature of the authoritative leadership.