Last week I had to travel to Rome to obtain a visa to India for an upcoming emerging leader training. I traveled down a little early so I could climb the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral. It truly is one of the best views of Rome. When I arrived, I noticed a lot of people and a lot of security. It was Holy Week at the Vatican-so I should not have been surprised. I was quickly informed that the dome was closed until 1:00 p.m. because of a general audience with Pope Benedict. I decided to stick around and take in the moment. Everyone seem to have special tickets for this Easter week gathering. I was hanging around the entrance, which was being monitored by the famous Swiss Guard-when one of them motioned me into the sectioned off seating area. I looked around to be sure he was directing his attention to me-he was, and I went in. I had an incredible seat. I was about 15 rows from the front. So I stayed to hear what the Pope would say.
As I waited for the Pope to address the crowd I began to wonder how this man still garnered so much devotion and attention. Pilgrims from many parts of the world were on hand. Thousands filled the square. When the Pope finally made his appearance, the crowd erupted in wild cheers. But why-really? The last few years have not been the best for the Catholic Church in terms of public relations. With the sexual scandals dogging the priesthood and unpopular stances regarding abortion, marriage, and celibacy-and shrinking attendance at mass-you would think his appearance would hardly garner a small crowd. If he were the president of some corporation with the current circumstances, he would have been soundly booed off the stage. There would have been protests galore. But as he made his appearance you would never know of the problems that surround the Catholic church.
Here are some thoughts on why people will still follow, even in light of glaring issues:
1. People will ascribe moral authority to the position or office even if some expressions of that authority have failed them. People believe Pope Benedict is a good man. People believe that he is a man who desires to lead well and do right by the church and her parishoners. People ascribe a certain amount of authority to the title, the position, or the person-and that can cover for a number of wrongs committed by his underlings. In other words, most leaders have a certain amount of authority lent to them. If the leader leads well and effects positive change, that lent authority can turn into granted authority-willingly and rightly extended and given to those who prove worthy.
2. People deeply want to believe in something. People generally believe the best in their leaders. We want to give people a second chance. There is something within us that wants to believe in the ideal. We want to hope-we want to trust. So we will remain patient in the face of inconsistencies-to a point. We will extend the second and third chance. But patience will run out when the inconsistencies begin to exact a real toll. When our patience begins to feel like foolishness we will withdraw our trust. Trust must be validated by character and consistent actions-from the top of the structure to the bottom of the structure.
3. People want to be led and will willingly follow when authority is earned. People will flock to a truly good leader. When a leader’s character and consistent actions match a community’s real needs, authority will be granted and honored. But that character must include dealing with obvious problems within the organization. If problems are ignored, granted authority will be withdrawn. The only hope at that point for the leader is to demand followership through threat or dominance.
I don’t think these principles are only for the church. Any leader’s moral authority is really only as good as the effective change they create and the consistent leadership they provide.
There are three types of authority-demanded, lent and granted. People will lend you a certain amount of authority as a leader-but if you don’t move rather quickly from lent authority to granted authority you will have to resort to demanded authority to maintain your influence. And that is never where you want to be. That is authority that is only derived from the power of the position. Granted authority is what people willingly extend to consistent character and positive influence. Even the Pope-or the institution, can over extend it’s moral authority. Leadership character includes really dealing with real problems.