Moral authority is not discussed very frequently, but lately we’ve heard a lot of talk about it, particularly in relation to President Trump. Does he have it? Is he losing it? Does it even matter? This post, however, is not about Donald Trump. It is about why people want their leaders to have moral authority, and by extension, why you should strive to earn it.

Let’s start with some clarity about what I mean by the term “moral authority.” Moral authority is not about having the power to force people to follow one’s lead. It is the ability to influence people through the virtue of one’s character, the strength of one’s example and the wisdom of one’s words.

We expect leaders to articulate a vision for the future. A vision statement inherently involves a moral stance because it’s always about the “ought”. Here are just a few examples: Ought we build an oil pipeline through sacred lands? Ought we legalize marijuana? Ought we remove statues of heroes of the Confederacy? The more I think about this topic, the more I’m inclined to believe that moral authority is the most important aspect of leadership.

Leaders who earn moral authority also gain legitimacy. People follow that leader because they want to, not because they are being coerced or threatened. People want a leader they can look up to. People want a leader whose principles are clear and who has the courage to act with integrity to those principles, even when doing so requires personal sacrifice. People want a leader who can explain events so they can understand what’s going on and what it means. People want a leader who will help them see what is the right thing to do and why it’s the right thing to do. People want a leader who puts the well-being of others ahead of the leader’s self-interests.

Leaders who gain moral authority exert enormous influence on others. They cause people to strive to be better. They tap in to each person’s reservoir of discretionary effort. They inspire hope. They give people the confidence that the team is striving for the right goals for the right reasons, and that they are pursuing those goals in a way they can be proud of.

Leaders who earn moral authority can make a huge difference in the lives of their people. I hope you choose to become one of those leaders.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg


Larry Sternberg is the co-author of  Managing to Make a Difference (Wiley), a handbook for hitting the sweet spot of middle management. He also serves as the Talent Plus Fellow, performing duties as an oft-requested speaker and consultant.

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