Moral authority: Internally generated, always tested and fragile

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Air War College
All leaders require authority to act or to tell other people to act, particularly in the profession of arms. Early on in a leader's career, authority, granted by the institution, is emphasized through one's commission, the Constitution, the U.S. Code, rank, position and orders. Over time, however, good leaders begin to establish their own authority, their personal authority to lead others based on the kind of people they are as well as other factors, such as experience, competence, education, personality, relevance and personal maturity. Institutional authority is always required, but tends to be understated as personal authority builds.

A key component of personal authority is moral authority. In fact, moral authority may be the most important facet of any leader's authority. Moral authority emanates from within and is reflective of a leader's character. Thus, a leader of good character generates the moral authority required to hold others to a high standard of moral and ethical behavior. Moral authority is also the basis for trust; without it, trust is never established between a leader and followers. Ultimately, moral authority translates into credibility and legitimacy. It is imperative for leaders to remember three points concerning moral authority: it is generated from within (that is, it cannot be given or granted), it is always tested and it is fragile.

Some leaders, maybe too many in the recent past, have lost their moral authority because they forgot why they lead. Rare is the day that we do not read about or hear of a military leader being relieved, frequently for "loss of trust and confidence." Actually, leaders do not "lose" their moral authority; they give it away. Listed below are four, all-to-common mistakes that cause leaders to forfeit their moral authority:

Being pompous: The line separating "confidence" from "arrogance" is, indeed, thin. Leaders cross that line when they believe they know more, do more and achieve more than other people. Arrogance is never contained. What begins as an inkling of superiority will eventually manifest itself in deeds, comments and gestures. People know the difference between leaders who are selfless and leaders who merely want to appear selfless.

Being entitled: It usually begins small, by bending the rules and permitting self-exceptions, but it ends with two standards: one standard for self and the other standard for everyone else. It is easy to "justify" to yourself why it is in the best interests of the organization to be treated differently. Regardless of what you tell yourself, being held to a different standard is always wrong, unless that standard is higher and more stringent than the norm.

Seeking power: Success is addictive. It feels good. Wanting even more success is only natural, but it can become destructive. Good leaders lead people because they have something to contribute and because they love what they do. Balanced leaders focus on the present, the organization or the enterprise at hand. They do not spend a lot of time thinking about self, future promotions and positions.

Dithering: Leaders make things happen. Sometimes they make mistakes, but they are never afraid to act. When a leader is more concerned about being wrong than actually getting things done, people in close proximity to that leader become frustrated. By not deciding, or deciding too late, problems spin out of control and subordinates are forced to do the job of the boss.

Finally, no one can take your moral authority, but you can surrender it by being selfish, stupid or self-centered. Maintain your moral authority. Focus your energy and efforts on others.

Always remember, moral authority is internally generated, always tested and fragile.

The author credits Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse for her work in the area of moral authority.