As a leader you can be a good administrator, a good manager, a good negotiator, a shrewd politician, an astute businessman or a good strategist. But do others see you as a leader with moral authority? And is it important?

When we evaluate the qualities of leaders we typically think of qualities that relate to tangible outcomes. Is it a person who can deliver on specific goals? Is it someone who can create financial growth, who can make the team win? Is he dynamic, clever, charismatic and a 'doer'? No doubt, these are important considerations. But are they still as important in the eyes of the subordinate or follower if the leader is also disrespectful of others, dishonest, untrustworthy, manipulative, underhand and egoistic? Once a leader loses the respect of his followers he will find it difficult to get their cooperation and support. His only resort is to intimidate others with the power of his position and to be more of a boss than a leader. We see them in the political world, the business world, the sports world, the academic world and in every other sphere of life.

When we read the newspaper stories about corruption or when we hear stories about crooked deals in the business world, we sometimes wonder if strong uncompromising moral leadership is still a possibility in our world today. I have heard people bemoaning the quality of African leadership making sweeping statements that most African leaders always were and still are immoral. That is why corruption is rife and good people are not empowered to get ahead by doing honest work. Evil cycles of bribery, intimidation and lying prevail, they say. No doubt one can find these patterns in every corner of the globe. The question is how can we develop moral authority.

To grow moral leadership we as leaders need to ask more questions about our own motives when we make decisions and when we choose to ignore certain practices or behaviors that need to be questioned. We know that people have drivers or personal needs (usually unconscious) such as the need to be right, to win, to be loved, to avoid conflict, to be perfect, to be appreciated, and to be successful. In themselves these are not necessarily problems, but they are when they cause destructive behavior of which the leader is unaware and thus does not control. Particularly when we are under some kind of pressure, we might compromise our beliefs and values and give in to temptation.

Abraham Lincoln said a true word when he said that nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character [or moral strength], give him power. As human beings we mostly feel that we can justify our own decisions and actions until we are proven wrong. With more power we are less likely to be challenged by other human beings. People respect power, fear power and are intimidated by power. It is the sense of being powerful that can quiet our conscience sufficiently to commit an immoral act. The quest for moral leadership is thus very much the quest for reconciling power with moral authority. The more powerful the leadership position, the stronger our commitment to moral accountability needs to be. It ultimately questions our spiritual beliefs. Who are we when nobody is watching us? If we have all the power in the world, how and by what will our decisions be guided?

The title of this article is somewhat misleading. A moral leader will not refer to himself as a champion of morality. It is far too arrogant and arrogance leads to complacency and carelessness. On the contrary, moral leaders are humbled by their ongoing recognition and awareness of their own fallibility. However, leaders need to set high standards for themselves in all aspects of their lives. Not least of all their moral example. The moral ethos of the organization is determined by the leaders. If there are cracks in their moral judgment, they will over time become visible in the rest of the organization. Good leaders are therefore willing to be evaluated in their moral leadership as much as the other areas of leadership. They will invite employees to blow the whistle on unethical practices and they will reward them for their courage. They will demonstrate the belief that business or politics need not to play according to the rules of the underworld to prosper.

If skillful leadership requires a good measure of cognitive, emotional and social intelligence, then moral leadership requires strong convictions and courage. As Martin Luther King said: The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Leaders, to be real leaders, need to stand up for what is right and condemn what is wrong. They then need to follow through on that moral stance and take action where and when needed.

Author's Bio: 

Dr Gerhard van Rensburg has been practicing as a full-time leadership and executive coach since 2002. His coaching focus is the development of leadership. He published two leadership books, The Leadership Challenge in Africa, and Leadership Thoughts. He strongly believes that we need to be lifelong learners in the areas of our vision, character and relationships. Growth in these areas form the foundation to our career and leadership growth. His approach in coaching is to partner with people as a facilitator of their growth, particularly as leaders in the workplace – thereby optimizing potential and positive results. In doing so he integrates the various relevant contexts and perspectives.

He developed an online leadership development program in 2012/3 named '32 Leadership Principles to unlock your potential' (