On True Leadership

Tom Morris

My son Matt brought a situation to my attention a while back, one having to do with what he and I both came to see as a misuse of power. Our conversation began to revolve around issues of leadership and the moral authority. In the course of a few minutes, I made a number of distinctions that were natural for a philosopher to make. And they seemed to resonate with Matt. At one point, he asked, "Could you write down what you just said?" I did, for his use, and I've decided to post it here, as my new thoughts of the week. It's a very short reflection on a particular aspect of leadership.

In hierarchical organizations, it is not uncommon to see a certain pair of mistakes being made, especially by people appointed to positions of power. The first mistake consists in believing that position on its own confers authority. The second consists in thinking that the proper modalities for exercising authority are force and fear.

Position can indeed confer power. Position can carry with it the organizational power to get things done, along with the power to reward and punish others for what they do or fail to do. But authority is a moral notion. Legitimate authority has to be accepted as such. That is its essential nature. The Bible is authoritative for Christians because, in part, they accept it as such. If a person is in a position of power but is not morally acceptable to others as a legitimate authority, then that personıs position will not carry with it the reality of authority, regardless of its title.

One of the ties between position and authority is respect. A person can be in a position of power and yet not have the respect of the people who live under the sway and threat of that power. Such a person does not usually have legitimate moral authority. Such a person canıt be a true leader.

Leadership is ultimately a moral category. The position of a true leader is more a matter of respect and regard than it is of organizational title. Leaders can be anywhere in an organization. Likewise, those at the top may not be true leaders at all, but only titular obstacles to the real progress of the organization, exercising power indeed but carrying no moral authority whatsoever.

The person of position who wrongly thinks that title confers authority is often found exercising power as an attempted proof for that false belief. He deals in force and fear, mistakenly thinking that these things evoke the sort of respect that is a necessary part of authority. But the sort of respect that confers legitimate authority is never the same thing as fear, and it doesnıt naturally arise out of fear. Respect is connected not with fear but with honor. An honorable person is respected. And, in modern terms, honor requires goodness, kindness, and a deep respectfulness of those whose reciprocal respect is needed in order for a situation of real authority to exist.

The power monger motivates with fear. But this is thuggery, not leadership. The true leader motivates with a positive vision that connects with the highest aspirations of those he leads.

Motivating with fear works only when the danger is not manufactured by the motivator, as in times of war, and works only for the short term. And itıs never a maximizing form of motivation. People who are motivated by fear figure out what the least is that they can do to avoid the feared consequences. And they do no more than that. People, by contrast, who are motivated by a positive vision that connects up with their highest aspirations spend their time trying to do that most they can, not the least, in support of their shared vision.

The worst advice ever given to people in positions of power was provided by Machiavelli, who said that human beings are moved by the two powers of love and fear, but love is too fickle, therefore we should motivate through fear. The love that exists between people and their deepest values is the least fickle force in the world, and it is the greatest source of motivation. A true leader motivates people with love. And a true leader ends up with real authority.

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