Pallavi Pinakin analyses what constitutes moral authority in leadership

The driving force behind many human endeavours is to achieve excellence, whether we are building, providing or problem solving. This holds especially true when it comes to running a business.

People must work in tandem to attain such high goals; and to successfully do so, there must be a binding ethos that brings them together.

So what can we call such a force?

In a word, leadership.

According to John Maxwell’s book titled ‘The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,’ the true measure of leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.

But where does this influence come from?

It’s important to make a distinction between different kinds of influence. It can be natural such as a commanding personality, seniority-based, success oriented and so on.

When we think about leadership, we tend to perceive it as positional authority – a formal title or position that grants someone a certain level of influence over others, such as the CEO of a company, a general in the army or the captain of a basketball team.

However, Maxwell argues that positional authority is actually the lowest form of leadership. Simply brandishing a designation doesn’t make one a good leader!

So what constitutes the highest form of influence?

The answer, according to many philosophical and business thinkers, is moral authority.

Positional authority can be achieved instantaneously and is often granted to the undeserving; but moral authority can only be achieved through constant effort and staying committed to one’s convictions, building trust and demonstrating ethical consistency over the years.

Simply put, it is the acknowledgement of a person’s influence based on what ideals he or she represents rather than the position they hold. In the words of scientist-philosopher Theodore Brown, “it is the capacity to convince others of how the world should be.”

Leadership consists of both the leader’s vision and the follower’s belief in that vision.

It’s crucial to note that while leaders can work to earn moral authority through their words and actions, only others can grant them such influence. This happens when a follower is truly inspired by a leader and feels a sense of ethical harmony with him or her.

Simply occupying an influential position doesn’t necessarily give someone leadership authority. That’s why some managers are unable to control their teams or bosses fail to inspire employees.

In contrast, leading a life of integrity and being in sync with strong personal values can make someone a leader in the eyes of others. Such people are gifted the mantle of leadership with-out having to ask for it. People naturally tend to gravitate towards and follow someone who exudes this brand of morality.

So why do we need moral authority in an organisation?

Pastor and leadership coach Chuck Olson puts it like this: “People follow people, not positions… No amount of skill, wealth, personality, education or accomplishment can compensate for the absence of moral authority.”

It seems that such influence is imperative to bring out the best in a team. True respect for a leader and the desire to live up to his or her example are great motivators.

The 2020 ‘State of Moral Leadership in Business’ report, based on data collected from 1,500 business individuals, highlights how important ethical influence is in a corporate setup.

Not only do morally sound leaders have far stronger connections with their employees and colleagues but the presence of such leadership also boosts business performance. That’s why it is in an organisation’s best interest to work to foster a culture of moral influence.

According to Maxwell, moral authority is founded on three essential Cs. These are traits a leader must consistently embody to gain ethical influence.

COMPETENCE Being liked has its own place but it’s being really good at what you do that will garner respect and followers. Focus on working hard and increasing knowledge in your chosen field, and establish yourself as someone worth emulating. Your commitment and expertise will raise your moral authority.

COURAGE It is famously said that courage is not the lack of fear but the ability to move forward in spite of it. As a leader, it is imperative to have the moral strength to take risks and make hard decisions even in the face of uncertainty. Persevere through challenges in order to set the right example.

CHARACTER Developing character is like building any other skill – it requires the constant practice of traits such as integrity, humility and honesty. Compromising on your core values can cause a huge setback and inflict long-lasting damage on your moral influence. When you focus on your inner growth and remain committed to your values, you become a leader capable of leaving behind a worthy legacy.