How Moral Authority Makes Leaders Better

How Moral Authority Makes Leaders Better

The true measure of leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.

—The Law of Influence, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership


I’ve been known for my definition of leadership for more than 45 years: Leadership is influence. If you’ve led people for any length of time, you probably know instinctively that this is true. But have you ever wondered where the influence comes from?

No Authority

I found myself asking that question in my first leadership job. Just a few weeks out of college, I became the pastor of a small rural church in the farming community of Hillham, Indiana. The word community almost makes it sound bigger than it really was: 11 houses, two gas stations, and a little country store.

It was a job I thought I could handle in an environment where I could learn the ropes. The church wasn’t big, it wasn’t in a city, and there were no titans of industry to deal with. I would be a medium fish in a small pond. The bylaws of the organization said that I was the leader of the congregation and the chairman of the organization’s board. I thought that made me a leader.

The first time I met with the board, I prepared for it. I thought about the vision and how I would articulate it. I thought about how I wanted the meeting to go, and I wrote a detailed agenda.

I knew that, as the chairman, I was supposed to open the meeting and run it. So after the introductions and greetings were finished and we were sitting around the table, I prepared to start. But before I could say or do anything, Claude, one of the board members, said, “Pastor, why don’t you open us in prayer?”

That’s a good idea, I thought, so I prayed.

I opened up the file folder with copies of my agenda in it and was about to hand them out, when Claude said, “There are a couple of things I think we ought to talk about tonight.”

Oh, I thought, okay. We can take care of those things first. Then we can get to my agenda.

Claude led the discussion and asked questions while the other men responded. I listened and tried to follow along. Most of the things they were dealing with were the kind of mundane, everyday items that need to be done in an organization, so there was nothing earth-shattering.

After about an hour, Claude said, “Well, that about does it. Pastor, why don’t you close us in prayer?”

So I said a prayer, everybody got up, shook hands, said their goodbyes, and went home. And I thought to myself, What just happened?

Where Does Authority Come From?

That’s the day I learned that a leadership position does not give someone leadership authority. And having a title is not the same as having influence. I had the title, but everyone followed Claude. His opinion was the one that mattered at the table. Everyone agreed with everything he said. And they were glad to do what he said.


A leadership position does not give someone leadership authority.


Back then, I had not yet discovered my definition of leadership, but after that board meeting, I began thinking about the topic. And I started trying to figure out why all the board members followed Claude. He was a middle-aged farmer who also worked at the nearby power plant. He wasn’t an especially impressive man. He wasn’t educated. But he had influence.

I look back now, and I realize that in the small world of Hillham, Claude had a degree of moral authority. To the people in that church and on that board, his words carried great weight. Why? Because of the way he lived his life. He was a good man. He was honest, fair, and hardworking. His word and actions lined up, and that had been true for decades. He cared for the congregation and was always ready to help. Claude would not have recognized himself as a leader or called himself a leader, yet he had earned the right to be followed.

When it comes to leadership, I think there are all kinds of authority. Here are some examples:

  • Natural Authority: Some people naturally lead better than others and therefore step into leadership roles.
  • Positional Authority: This kind of authority comes with a title or a formal position in an organization and is the lowest level of leadership.
  • Knowledge Authority: Knowing more than others do or having specific information can give people an influence edge.
  • Situational Authority: A certain circumstance can arise that requires the most qualified person to lead in that situation.
  • Relational Authority: When people have built relationships with others, that gives them influence to lead.
  • Proximity Authority: When individuals are close to the real leader or authority figure, they can borrow from that leader’s influence to lead others.
  • Success Authority: Success gives people credibility, and others want to be on their team to be part of their success.
  • Mentoring Authority: Developers of other people increase their influence with the people they mentor and gain a reputation for credibility.
  • Seniority Authority: In some cultures, being an elder or having seniority in an organization gives authority.

My experience with Claude started me on a journey toward understanding different kinds of leadership authority. It helped me settle my definition of leadership. It prompted me to develop the 5 Levels of Leadership, which is a process whereby people can develop influence with others. And it ultimately led me to the concept of moral authority, which is the highest level of influence. For 50 years I have been in the process of the influence shift, from positional authority to moral authority. It’s a journey I’m still on, and a shift I’m still working to make.

What is moral authority? It can be difficult to define. On his blog, Theodore Brown acknowledges that the term is used a lot, but he also states how difficult moral authority is to define. One example he gives is what he calls the John McCain effect, which he says is “the capacity to convince others of how the world should be.”

Here’s another perspective from Harvard Business School professor Kevin Sharer. He writes:

“Moral authority is not easy to define precisely, but like many things, you know it when you see it, or especially when you do not. Lack of moral authority in leaders breeds distrust, creates cynicism and kills initiative throughout the organization. Over time, the lack of strong moral authority in the leadership is fatal to the enterprise or country.”

These perspectives make moral authority sound grandiose. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Claude had moral authority and didn’t even know it. But so did Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. So what is moral authority? Here’s my definition:

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 it 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.

Moral authority is truly the highest level of leadership influence, and many people recognize it. It comes from possessing good values. It adds value to others. It inspires people. It helps the leader to make the right decisions for the right reasons. It marks a life of words and actions that line up. We know when we’re in the presence of someone who has moral authority, and we want to follow them!

In “4 Ways to Build Moral Authority,” Chuck Olson says:

“People follow people, not positions. Your business card may say you’re a leader and in-charge, but if your bank account of moral authority is overdrawn, you will be forced to rely on extrinsic factors to rally your followers. No amount of skill, wealth, personality, education, or accomplishment can compensate for the absence of moral authority. Perks and paychecks are the currency required to enlist people in a project, but moral authority is the currency required to enlist people in a movement. Andy Stanley in his book, Next Generation Leader, observes: ‘Your position will prompt people in your organization to lend you their hands … But your moral authority will inspire them to lend you their hearts.’”

Moral authority has the implicit power to transform what is into what can be. It takes people to higher levels of living and leading. It’s inspirational, yet at the same time it is grounded and credible. It makes leaders better because they desire to do better. Moral authority brings out the best in teams because of the respect team members have for the leaders and the desire team members have to live up to and follow their example.




Taken from
Leadershift by John C. Maxwell © 2019 by John C. Maxwell. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership.






John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.

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