The Power of Moral Authority
As I reflect on the various management styles of individuals I’ve worked with, both in politics and without, I recall some really excellent examples, some… not so excellent (I’m pleased to say those I work with at time of publishing this are all excellent), I sometimes find myself recalling one of the worst examples I ever came across – when former head of OfSTED, Michael Wilshaw, was quoted in 2012 as saying:
“If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right.”
Really? He thought low morale was a success indicator? I hold this up as a particularly fine example of ego being the core driver, regardless of the human cost in self esteem, confidence and vitality of others. In holding his view Wilshaw was, in my opinion, blind to the fact that he was missing a key component that would net the success he wanted far more effectively than by crushing the morale of those he needed to bring it about. He was missing the component of moral authority.
Moral authority is arguably the opposite of formal authority, though they can co-exist in the same person at the same time, they can rarely be used simultaneously.
Formal authority is bestowed by virtue of job role, rank, position, contract. It is expected by right, even demanded, rather than given freely.
Moral authority, on the other hand, has no rank or position, or power to demand anything. Yet when freely given has arguably far more power to move people and achieve goals than any amount of formal authority. Rather than demanding, it leads by example. Rather than sacrificing others, it sacrifices itself.
In his book “The 8th Habit” Stephen R. Covey explains the powerful difference between the two.
“When conscience governs vision, discipline and passion, leadership endures and changes the world for good. In other words, moral authority makes formal authority work. When conscience does not govern vision, discipline and passion, leadership does not endure, nor do the institutions created by that leadership endure. In other words, formal authority without moral authority fails.
“The words “for good” means that it “lifts” and also that it “lasts”. Hitler had vision, discipline and passion but was driven by ego. Lack of conscience was his downfall. Gandhi’s vision, discipline and passion were driven by conscience, and he became a servant to the cause and the people. Again, he had only moral authority, no formal authority, and he was the father and founder of the second largest country in the world.
“When vision, discipline and passion are governed by formal authority void of conscience or moral authority, it also changes the world, but not for good, rather for evil. Instead of lifting, it destroys; rather than lasting, it is eventually extinguished.”
(Stephen R. Covey, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, (Simon and Schuster, Australia, Sydney, 2004), pp70)
Moral authority is an essential within modern competitive organisations. Good examples must be given, managers and leaders must talk and walk, because where they simply choose to ignore conscience and crush morale as a “motivator”, moral authority is unlikely to be arriving on the next train.
The “moral”, in “moral authority”, is inextricably intertwined with morality. The problem is very real. Managers and leaders, acting on ego, undermine their own moral authority and have nothing to replace it with but more ego, and it becomes a vicious circle.
If managers and leaders are to have moral authority, that means honesty and integrity as a bare minimum. Traits that are often the opposite of the egocentric approach. Traits that, quite frankly, scare those who are habitually egocentric in their management style – they like making allegations but they hate needing evidence, they like ‘drama’ but they hate cool reasoned consideration, they like pointing at others but cannot bear to see the flaws in themselves – it allows them to get away with maintaining their approach. Honesty and integrity are too transparent, too open, it is scary for the egocentric.
Again, in “The 8th Habit” Covey describes the traits of the egocentric:
“Ego focuses on one’s own survival, pleasure and enhancement to the exclusion of others and is selfishly ambitious. It sees relationships in terms of threat or no threat, like little children who classify all people as “He’s nice” or “He’s mean”…
“Ego works in the face of genuine crisis but has no discernment in deciding how severe a crisis or threat is…
“Ego can’t sleep. It micromanages. It disempowers. It reduces one’s capacity. It excels in control…
“Ego is threatened by negative feedback and punishes the messenger. It interprets all data in terms of self preservation. It constantly censors information. It denies much of reality…
“Ego is myopic and interprets all of life through its own agenda…”
(Stephen R. Covey, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, (Simon and Schuster, Australia, Sydney, 2004), pp78)
It seems obvious that such an approach to management and leadership is unlikely to result in the kind of success most organisations crave. As long as ego supersedes conscience, the success of an organisation is being undermined, and the true capacity of others is being crushed.
Ego will ultimately lose
The world is changing, as Covey also discusses in his book, the old industrial age is dying, and the principle of “servant leadership” hand in hand with the new age of “knowledge workers” is growing. With that in mind the following from Robert K. Greenleaf serves as a warning, to managers who cling to the egocentric industrial model, but also as an opportunity:
“A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants. To the extent that this principle prevails in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led.”
(Robert K. Greenleaf, “The Servant Leader,” Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate power and Greatness, 25th Anniversary ed. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2002), pp. 23-24.)
A sustainable future for any organisation and your success at any worthy goal is built not on ego, or prowess, or a sense of entitlement, but on conscience, honesty, integrity, vision, discipline, passion and personal responsibility.
As a libertarian these are essential, and where they are found in deficit you can simply choose to withdraw your consent, to withdraw your allegiance, and move on as you choose.