A business leader with a team of professional looking people behind him.

Do you have positional authority? Do you have moral authority? Which is more powerful?

As a leader, you must develop your influence over others. To do so, you must gain moral authority—respect and recognition for exemplary personal qualities, values, and actions. Having positional authority may force people to follow you, but earning moral authority makes people want to follow you.

Read more to learn how to earn moral authority as a leader.

How to Earn Moral Authority

Positional authority might come with the territory (by default), but moral authority comes from authentic respect that others have for you. To develop moral authority, Maxwell suggests you do the following.

1. Demonstrate excellence. Prove to your team members that you’re committed to producing excellent work even with the smallest of tasks. By regularly producing quality work, you’ll establish a reputation for competence and earn others’ confidence and esteem.

2. Be consistent in your actions and values. Be steady and reliable by living according to good character traits like integrity, authenticity, humility, and love. This shows people that you mean what you say, which builds trust and security within your team.

3. Face challenges courageously. Maxwell writes that leaders should be prepared to face difficult realities and to be the first to take action. Recognize that success doesn’t come without sacrifice, and demonstrate bravery and resilience when confronting challenges. By demonstrating courage, you can inspire others during crises and energize them to perform at their best.

The Four Pillars of Moral Leadership

Experts argue that moral authority not only enhances a leader’s effectiveness within their organization, but it also has a positive impact on society. They argue that in our globally linked world, the potential to be a positive or a negative influence has never been greater. Research shows, however, that moral leaders are in short supply: In one study, only 7% of respondents claim their manager consistently demonstrates moral leadership.

Other experts have defined four pillars of moral leadership that closely align with the moral authority behaviors that Maxwell identifies:

1. Let purpose lead: Moral leaders have a meaningful goal that acts as a North Star for them and their team.

2. Inspire and elevate others: Consistency is only one quality of good leadership. Moral leaders also foster an environment where people feel trusted and driven by the mission. They do this by seeing the humanity in others, building deep relationships, and cultivating a culture of trust and interdependency.

3. Embody your values: Moral leaders are not only courageous when facing uncertainty, but moral leaders act according to their values, even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult.

4. Build moral muscle: Moral leaders continually think about what’s fair and just, ask if their actions align with their main goal, and build strong moral values in others by talking about these issues openly and owning up to their actions.
Moral Authority: 3 Ways Leaders Can Earn It (John C. Maxwell)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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