Moral Authority

Famous Landmark and Mountain Sculpture - Mount Rushmore, near Keystone, South Dakota. Shot taken July 2009.; Shutterstock ID 115215937; PO: today.com; Other: claudia
Prof. Kevin Sharer

Thomas Friedman got me thinking the other day when, in a surprisingly agitated commentary (he’s usually pretty calm and measured) he talked about the difference between formal authority and moral authority.   If you’re not familiar with Friedman, you should be.  He is a widely acclaimed author and columnist, winner of three Pulitzers and now serves as the “Foreign Affairs” columnist for the New York Times.  His comments on moral authority arose on Morning Joe in the context of the political world, yet his thoughts bear reflection for anyone who seeks or occupies a leadership position.

We explore many aspects of leadership at HBS. We study the formal authority that comes from power of position- think corporate governance. We talk about power that comes from expert knowledge – think of the many technical or legal advisors you will encounter. We talk about power that comes from ownership, legal rights, elected position, place on the organizational chart, ability to hire, fire, reward, and promote. The list goes on. Should we be secure as leaders that by playing by the rules and relying on our formal and expert authority, that all will be well?  No.   While formal authority arising from society’s organizing structures, along with expert subject matter knowledge can create a powerful basis from which to exercise leadership, these are not sufficient to be a truly effective leader. Too many leaders think that their job title, their large ownership stake or their having founded the organization, automatically establishes them as effective leaders. Certainly they have power; but true leadership, credibility, and effectiveness must be earned and sustained through moral authority.

Moral authority is absolutely necessary to be a truly impactful leader who is a force for good. My experience says people and organizations have a very difficult time sustaining operational excellence, succeeding strategically, and delivering on the firm’s mission led by those whose authority is rooted only in the formal elements discussed earlier. People want to be inspired, feel they are part of something bigger than themselves, and know that they are valued as unique, precious individuals. 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.

Moral authority is rooted in leaders who adhere to a set of positive values in their deeds and words. There are four values that are foundational, and if they are not present other elements cannot compensate. These values are humility, respect, honesty, and the commitment and ability to do the hard right thing. Each one of these values is a very, very big idea with many implications. The key is that word and deed must match. Organizations have exquisite ability to detect dissonance between word and deed. You cannot hide or fake it. You will be found out.

Humility means you realize your gaps in knowledge, experience, and wisdom and know you must continue to get better. You are curious. You listen intently with an objective of understanding- not arguing, not multitasking, not cutting people off, etc. Moreover, your listening is complex and is sensitive to information that may be arriving from far afield. You seek input. You encourage openness in discussion. You want and value feedback. Humility is not a lack of confidence, abdication or timidity but a powerful force for good.

Respect is another big idea. People instinctively know when they are not respected. Respect or its lack is conveyed in body language, verbal tone and words, degree of attention, true interest in the thoughts and priorities of others.   By embracing and celebrating differences in background, gender, identity, and experience, we show respect.  A bully does not show respect and cannot be tolerated.  Elites who do not reach outside their bubble do not show respect. People who characterize those who do not agree with them as stupid, mean spirited, or inferior do not show respect. Business leaders who characterize public servants or officials as inept, lazy, or ill-intentioned do not show respect. True respect and true humility are related and together form one of the most effective leadership approaches.

Honesty is more complex than might be imagined. The simple but not always easy aspect is tell the truth. Truth is not always simple, though. You say things that are factual but leave out key elements? Omission is a form of dishonesty. You cite “studies” you know to be biased without mentioning their context? You make a promise to an employee or customer but fail to follow up?  You disparage colleagues behind their backs?  You decide not to support the decisions made while you were in the room and had the opportunity to object?   Honesty is a big idea and a higher bar than most realize.

The last value upon which moral authority rests is the practice of making the hard right decision. This often means putting the mission or the organization above yourself. This can mean disappointing people who are close to you. This can mean taking serious short term pain for a better long term outcome. This can mean not taking everything you possibly can off the table but allowing your opponent or competitor an honorable place to stand. Separating someone from the organization who is a strong performer in many ways but over time is unwilling to live the values of the organization is one of the hardest right things to do that a leader will face.

The world is in shorter supply of capable leaders with earned moral authority than we need. Be personally committed in word and deed to addressing this deficit. Now is a good time to start.


Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.