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The delegation of power: Edmund Burke on authority and implications for leadership

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posted on 2023-12-18, 05:11 authored by Robert N. Winter

In his day, Burke railed against what he deemed the incoherent attempt by revolutionaries to claim that political entitlement is derived from a mystical set of natural rights. This is because the very notion of ‘the people’ is an artificial or, pace Popper, normative construct. The product of a society rather than an immutable form that has existed time out of mind. Burkean conceptualisations defended in this thesis offer a counter-model to the dominance in much of the scholarship that positions leadership as something which is:

1. Irrational.4

2. Somewhat disconnected from its social / institutional / organisational setting.5

3. Revolutionary.6

In opposition to this view stands Burke, offering an alternate triumvirate of leadership that is:

1. Profoundly Rational.

2. Grounded upon a relationship with the society in which leadership takes place.

3. Conservative. Which is not to say reactionary or ossified, but as something that involves a perpetual reformation of the relationships and institutions in play.

Aware of Edmund Burke’s thinking on the transfer of authority and construction of power during the American and French Revolutions, a close study of his writings and speeches seemed to offer an original contribution to leadership philosophy. This led to a conceptual thesis that draws on a broad range of Burke’s work from his early writings, through his speeches on the American Crisis, to his final thoughts on the French Revolution. In this thesis, I also draw on the philosophies that stimulated Burke’s own thinking and use the conceptualisations that flow from this combined study to critique some foundational leadership assumptions since Burke’s death in 1797.

What emerges from this analysis is the notion of a Burkean authority tripod that situates power as an end that results from the interplay between the tradition, relations and deliberation of leaders and followers. In a Burkean authority tripod, interpretations of the leader’s authority are separately understood by both the leader and the followers regarding the scope, privileges, obligations, and ultimately power delegated. The interactions in such a conceptualisation allow for the ebb and flow of power and function independently of the more formal trappings of leadership, even manifesting when there is no official recognition of the leader’s position.

This offers implications for leadership by providing a conceptualisation that stands in contrast to power-centric narratives. It does so by surfacing a follower-centric conceptualisation of leadership in which the central tenet is that power is only held in trust by a leader. In this Burkean system, there is a constant balancing between liberty of thought and action, on the part of the leader, and authorisation, as the basis of a leader’s power, on the part of the followers. A view so old, in the context of modern leadership research, it seems positively new.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - introduction: why Burke? -- Chapter 2 - criticism and alternative -- Chapter 3 - origins -- Chapter 4 - sui generis -- Chapter 5 - Burke: the authority tripod -- Chapter 6 - Burke Contra power -- Chapter 7 - conclusion: the delegation of power -- References

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Department of Management

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Robert Spillane

Additional Supervisor 1

Grant Michelson


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




309 pages

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