With the myriad of leadership books available today, one wonders if anyone can truly comprehend what it takes to be a leader in our fast changing, highly skeptical, postmodern business world. Based on my readings, there are two types of leadership books available.
One type of leadership book is based on the heroic leader, usually highly profiled and often publicized in terms of a monetary track record of success. These books often emphasize the leader’s entrepreneurial qualities, independent spirit, and dogged determination in overcoming personal and professional obstacles. If written right, these books often can inspire the reader. If written in a more self-serving way, these books can often deflate the reader in acknowledging they can never match up to the deeds of the writer.
The other kind of leadership book is more principled-centered than people- centered. This kind of leadership book will focus on universal truths that will help the reader apply these principles in their context. These books, if written right, will provide supportive examples in corporate life of organizations and individuals following these precepts successfully. If written more abstractly, these books will provide more “bumper-sticker” material than boardroom insights.
Of course, there are many books that blur the lines between heroic and principled-centered. Most experts define leadership simply as “influence.” But all of us know that the power of influence can have both positive and negative impact. By this simple definition, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein would be considered leaders along with Abraham Lincoln, Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, and Nelson Mandela. I am not going to fight with this definition of leadership as much as I am going to put a defining marker between good leadership and bad leadership. At the risk of seeming judgmental about this, I am simply being discerning between what is healthy and unhealthy for human beings and their institutions.
As one who is committed to Servant Leadership, my defining marker is moral authority. The right kind of leadership is more about moral authority than positional authority. Moral authority, in this context, stands apart from any religious implications.
Let me explain. There is no question that positional authority has tremendous power to influence, but moral authority will have deeper impact and greater longevity with more positive results. If you combine the two, positional authority with moral authority, people will follow you, even at great personal risk.
There are four dimensions to moral authority. First of all, the essence of moral authority is sacrifice. Sacrifice is the willingness to curb one’s self-interest for the sake of others. Secondly, the genius of moral authority is that it inspires us to become part of a cause worthy of our commitment and greater than ourselves. Followers ask this question first, “what is wanted of me?” instead of “what is in it for me?” Thirdly, the energy of moral authority is that the process and results are always inseparable: ends and means are joined at the hip. Finally, the measurement of moral authority is a mutual trust between leader and followers.
Friends, I have just described servant leadership. The reason such great past leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, John R.W. Stott, and Martin Luther King Jr. have large, vibrant followers far beyond their lifetimes is that they had moral authority. Influential current leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Ken Blanchard, Dan Cathy, and Ken Melrose are on course to leave a similar enduring legacy. In essence, all of them are examples of a true Servant Leader. All were imperfect servants who served for the sake of others, sacrificing themselves for something that is greater than themselves, asking the right questions, acting the right way, and creating a trust level that was unsurpassed in traditional forms of leadership.
Moral authority is the power behind servant leadership.