I stood at the front of the class room and looked out at the sea of sleepy and sullen teenagers and reconsidered my career choice. It was my first day as a student teacher. I was 20 years old, and the 4 years between my age and theirs felt very short indeed. I watched them sneak looks at each other and knew they thought the same. That was my first lesson in the laws of legitimacy. My teaching degree meant nothing in the classroom. Zilch. Zero. I had no legitimacy. I just spent $45,000 on a piece of paper that failed to give me the means to enact the authority it intended. To make it through that first hour, I had to draw on every trait, trick, and instinct I had. I knew that only my personal power could legitimize my position as teacher.
In political theory, legitimacy means power used in legally sanctioned ways. But legitimacy is so much more than law, as I discovered back then. Legitimacy is something that flows from the heart of those who follow. Legitimacy means your authority is ratified by the behavior of those who follow. It means you are a leader because people follow you, and not the other way around: that people follow you because you are the leader. Your power becomes legitimate when people follow you or do what you want them to do because they agree to, not because they are coerced.
And this is one of the things that make power and its use so paradoxical. Even though your position of power comes with the means to enforce it (laws, sanctions, force), if you use those very means to get people to follow you, you lose your legitimacy. If I had to force those teenagers to comply by threatening detention, or making them sit in different seats, or bringing in the principal, in their eyes, I would lose my authority. This is the first rule of authority: If you use it, you lose it.
We know this intuitively. Even as children, we sensed that our consent was a part of what gave adults their authority, and we figured out covert ways to withhold it deliberately, just to upset them, and test the limits of their authority. We couldn’t have articulated it, but we knew that their power depended on our obedience, and that though we can be forced to obey, it doesn’t mean we endorse their authority: You’re not the boss of me now!
If we look around the globe right now, it seems we’re in the throes of a legitimacy crisis. People are withholding their consent, and when leaders lose the consent of the governed, they are in a very, very difficult position. Force without legitimacy is tenuous, at best and leaders have three choices: (1) they can step down. This rarely happens without some bloodshed, but occasionally it does, for instance when Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union; (2) they can fight and use the lethal force at their disposal, which is now deemed illegitimate by the people, as in Former Egyptian President Mubarek and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is clinging to his rule through violent and brutal means, or (3) they can try to re-establish authority through legitimate means, for instance when former South African President F.W. de Klerk initiated the end to apartheid, de-criminalized the ANC, and released Nelson Mandela from prison.
But as we see in so many instances it’s an unusual leader who can choose the first and third option, follow the mandate of the people, and adjust to the winds of change.