I'm going to address political events here, but my intent is to shed light on leadership, not to make a partisan political argument. Tell me in the comments section if I've succeeded or failed. Be my leader!
THE TITLE OF THIS BLOG SPEAKS TO A FASCINATING TRUTH every leader needs to understand: Followers sometimes lead, and when they do, you better be on your toes: the results of group leadership are always dramatic. Sometimes they are beneficial, sometimes they are quite negative.
The past ’s events following the alt-right, KKK, Neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, VA, shed light on this phenomenon. There are lessons here for every leader.
President Trump’s failure to make an unambiguous, critical statement about the organizers of the Charlottesville protest is troubling and provocative to a large segment of Americans. It is causing many to speak out who normally don’t comment on political events, including prominent business people who have been abandoning the President’s business councils (and me).
When large numbers of people react strongly to things their leaders do (or don't do), the net effect will generally be positive or negative; it depends on which part of their nature is predominant: their inner angels or devils.
When the devils within take over, we have things like mob violence, torch-lit parades, and anti-semitic slogans. When the angels are uppermost, we have what I saw in the morning news today: people of the right and left, in the public sector and private, in communities north and south, east and west making virtually identical statements about the importance of equality, fairness, and egalitarianism, of neighborly love and consideration. When the angels predominate, we hear people like the mother of Heather Hyer, killed by a neo-Nazi during the Charlottesville march say,
“I want you to pay attention, find what’s wrong ... and say to yourself, what can I do to make a difference? And that's how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile. I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I’ve got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”
Much of the commentary I’ve been hearing and reading is critical of Mr. Trump for a failure of “moral authority.” What is this, and is moral authority anything we need to concern ourselves with in business and organizational life?
Moral authority is a basis of power, a social mechanism that enables a person to influence the behavior of others. The individual who draws on moral authority does not rely for suasion on logic, position power, codified rules or laws, coercion, or personal likability for their ability to move people. This person relies instead on veritas, Latin for truth, the kind of truth that emanates from wisdom and discernment. Gandhi had moral authority but not formal political power. But Gandhi had enormous political influence. FDR had enormous political power but also moral authority. He was an exceptionally talented politician but was also loved by millions willing to follow him.
President Lincoln, another leader who had moral authority, famously observed that the worst moment in the life of a leader is when the leader, in the heat of the battle, having mounted a horse and charging up the hill into a hail of gunfire, the leader says, “Let's go get ‘em!”, then looks around to see that no one is following. Such a leader has no moral authority. This is more or less the situation Mr. Trump is in, although arguably 30% of his base would follow him.
Let’s tie all this to business and organizational life. I tell my clients that the bigger the organizational change they are leading, the more the moral issues loom. But often, in the press of deadlines and the need for quick results, we leaders don’t think about the moral implications at all. We overlook them at our peril.
Here is a common, even mundane example of the need to consider moral authority at work: Suppose you are a CIO leading the change of your organization’s enterprise software system. If you ignore the moral issues surrounding the change, you will think that all you are asking employees to do is use a different set of screens to input data. You will think your task is one of training and “sandboxes.” Yet, what if the last three software installations were disasters? (This is quite likely: 60% of all software installs fail!) And what if you are seen by employees a as cold and uncaring person? Answer: The people will lead—by passive resistance.
As I consult to clients making organizational change, I tell them to judge their leadership effectiveness by the willingness of people to eagerly partner with them to ensure the change they are driving is successful. Many agree, but tell me they would have no way of even finding out how supportive people really are of the change objectives. “Then, ask them how they feel,” I tell them. The common reply is revealing: “You mean, just assemble a big group in a room and ask them if they feel supportive of the changes we’re driving?” Absolutely. Then ask them, “What would it take for you to partner with me/us to make this change a success?” You will learn a ton.
To many executives, this is terrifying! The most common retort I hear is, “Wouldn't this just turn into a bitch session?” Here is a novel thought, not lost on the leaders who get it about moral authority: If the people who look to you for leadership have something to bitch about, wouldn’t you want to be the first to know? My implication is that if you don’t know how the people are feeling about your change effort, you don’t know squat about leadership.
Many pundits are calling the Charlottesville events “a defining moment for the Trump presidency” (haven’t we heard this before?). I agree. And this moment will be defined, ultimately, by Trump’s character, i.e., his integrity, respect for the opinions of others, his character and respect for veritas. In other words, his moral authority. He has trouble leading. The question now is can he follow, i.e., can he learn from experience. The people are insisting on it.