I recently read John Maxwell’s excellent book Leadershift: 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace. One of my favorite chapters in the book was titled “Positional Authority to Moral Authority: The Influence Shift”. What exactly is moral authority and why is it important for leaders, and others, to have it?
Maxwell writes that moral authority is:
“The recognition of a person’s leadership influence based on who they are more than the position they hold. It is attained by authentic living that has built trust and is sustained by successful leadership endeavors. It is earned by a lifetime of consistency. Leaders can strive to earn moral authority by the way they live, but only others can grant them moral authority.”
This definition of moral authority is similar to the integrity competency we used in the organization where I worked. I would ask if a team member’s actions consistently matched their words. Did they build trust with others because others could depend on them to do what they said they were going to do? In other words, did their walk align with their talk? I see moral authority being closely aligned with character and dependability.
Andy Stanley in his book Visioneering, writes that moral authority is the credibility you earn by walking your talk. He tells us that moral authority is the result of a commitment to do what’s right.
When I mentored with emerging leaders, I would tell them that I wanted them to become leaders that others would want to follow. Stanley writes that to gain and maintain your influence as a leader you must have moral influence, and that moral authority makes you a leader worth following. Maxwell writes that you can’t cultivate moral authority unless people respect you. That respect is earned by consistently walking your talk.
Stanley tells us that moral authority is a fragile thing. It takes a lifetime to earn, but can be lost in a moment. And once it is lost it is almost impossible to restore.
Now that we have discussed what moral authority is, can you think of individuals who have lost their moral authority? It probably wouldn’t take you long to think of several.
Here are a few examples that I can think of:
- Politicians who aggressively advocate for abortion up until the day of birth, and yet proclaim to be people of faith. I’m sure you’ve heard them say something like “Personally I’m opposed to abortion, but…..”. They are not walking their talk.
- While it’s always possible to change your mind about an issue, you can probably think of politicians who campaigned with one set of beliefs on an issue, and then later, after they were in office, changed their mind as their thoughts were “evolving” on an issue. That happened with the previous governor of the state I live in. He campaigned as pro-life, but once in office he advocated for abortion rights. These are not individuals that you can depend on because they have violated your trust, not built it.
- How about the leader who promises you a promotion but then gives it to someone else? That certainly doesn’t build trust with you. I remember about 20 years ago, I was new in the IT department at my organization. We would receive anonymous performance feedback at the middle and end of each performance cycle. I can clearly recall reading a comment that read “Bill shouldn’t make promises he can’t keep”. I didn’t know then and never did find out what that comment was referring to, but I was devastated. It was clear that I had lost someone’s trust.
Can you see why it is important for leaders of all kinds to have moral authority? What are some examples of individuals who have lost their moral authority with you?