The people who have the most influence in our lives often have little to no official authority over us. Yet when they speak, we listen. When they lead, we follow. What do they have that sets them apart? And how can we leverage it in our leadership?
- Did your parents maintain their moral authority throughout your childhood? How has that affected you as an adult?
- We’re far more easily influenced by those we respect. Who, if anyone, has been a role model in your life? Why do you respect them?
- People are usually defined by their final chapter, not their finest chapter. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- The story of Nehemiah is a lesson in self-sacrifice. Is there anything you’re entitled to that you might be better off not accepting? Explain.
- Which of these three gauges do you need to pay the closest attention to?
- Your response to authority
- Your sense of entitlement
- Your imaginary conversations
NOTE: The following content is a raw transcript and has not been edited for grammar, punctuation, or word usage.
We’re actually in part two of a four-part series entitled Leading Through. Leading Through: Three Essentials for Navigating Uncertainty. As we talked about last time, the past several months have been challenging for all of us. They’ve been brutal for most of us, financially, socially, mentally, relationally. So consequently, there’s a sense in which we’re all picking up the pieces, trying to move forward the best that we can. But many of us, perhaps you, many of us are responsible for helping other people move forward as well, right, family members, employees, team members, maybe some students, members of the community.
So if you’re a parent, a manager, a business owner, or a coach, a mayor, or maybe a member of a city council, people are looking to you for direction. They’re looking to you for inspiration. And most importantly, they’re looking to you for hope. And here’s what we know as leaders. [chuckle] Leading under normal circumstances, that’s tough enough. But leading folks through what we’ve just come through, not for the faint of heart.
And I won’t tell, if you won’t, but the people who are looking to us for leadership, they have no idea, they have no idea how unprepared we really are, right? We said this the last time. We don’t have all the answers, and we don’t always know what to do, and there’s a sense in which we’re all just kinda making this up as we go along, at least I know I am. So there’s no point in kidding ourselves, and there’s no point in kidding the people who are looking to us for leadership, that uncertainty makes leadership uncertain. But uncertainty is a permanent part of life. In fact, it’s a permanent part of the leadership equation.
Uncertainty is why the world needs leaders. Uncertainty is why your family, your company, or your city needs you. So here’s what we’re doing. In this series, we’re discussing three essentials for leading through times of uncertainty and disruption. These are non-negotiables. I think they’re irreducible minimums. These are always important, but in times of uncertainty, they are more important than ever.
So last week, we kicked things off with a narrative from the Old Testament that presented us with the big picture as it relates to our role as leaders and influencers. And we were reminded of this: That leadership is a stewardship. Leadership is a stewardship. It is on loan. It’s an opportunity. It’s a responsibility. We don’t have people. We are responsible to people and for people. Leadership is a stewardship. And, remember the second part of this, and it is temporary, right? The clock is ticking. Time will eventually run out on our influence, and on our authority. Eventually, we either give it away or it’ll be taken away.
It’s temporary because, well, we’re temporary. And knowing that there’s an expiration date should inform our posture, and our tone, and our humility as leaders. Leadership is a stewardship, it’s temporary, and then here’s the third part of our equation, we are accountable. Every leader is accountable to somebody. Every leader is accountable to somebody for how they steward or manage their influence. So if you’re a theist or are more specifically a Jesus follower, here’s what we know. There’s actually a divine component to this as well. So with that as the broad context, I want us to dive into the first of our three non-negotiables for leading in times of uncertainty, so here we go.
Every leader, every leader exercises authority on two levels, two levels. One level is immediately apparent. One level becomes apparent. One level determines the leader’s influence within a defined context, and the other level determines their influence beyond that context. Now, immediately apparent is our… What we’re gonna call our positional authority. Positional authority is like father, mother, a manager, owner, boss, executive, police officer, teacher, coach. We pay attention to those people because they have a position or a role in our lives.
The second level of authority has nothing to do with the position. It has everything to do with influence. In fact, the people who have the most influence in our lives, often they have little to no actual official authority over us. It’s something… Well, there’s just something about them that gives them influence in our lives. They have an authority that extends beyond the title or even a timeframe. They have what we’re gonna call moral authority, moral authority.
They have moral authority because there’s alignment you’ve seen. There’s alignment between what they say and what they do. There’s alignment between what they expect of us and what they expect of themselves. Moral authority is the credibility they’ve earned by walking their talk. It’s the alignment between who they claim to be and who we discover that they really are. And moral authority, this is why this is so important, moral authority equates to influence. When there’s a difference, you know this, when there’s a difference between what somebody says they’re gonna do and what they do, what they expect of us and what they expect of themselves, what happens? What do we lose? We lose respect.
And, consequently, when we lose respect, they lose influence. We are far more easily influenced, we are far more easily influenced by people we respect, and moral authority, moral authority creates respect. It makes a person more respectable. It makes you more respectable. And when someone lacks moral authority, let’s face it, it’s hard to hear what they’re saying, not because of what they’re saying, but because of who’s saying it.
For example, and this may be a bit painful, if you grew up with a parent who struggled with substance abuse, or maybe you grew up with a parent who had a gambling habit that undermined the stability of your home, you understand this, right? It was hard to take their advice. It was hard to take their discipline seriously, not because of what they said, but because of decisions they’d made. So the bottom line is simply this, positional authority, positional authority provides a person with influence within a specific context for a limited time: Supervisor, coach, boss, parent, officer, right? But moral authority, moral authority provides a person with influence in a variety of contexts for an indefinite period of time.
Moral authority or the influence that we get from walking our talk is always important, but it is more important than ever during times of uncertainty and disruption. Now, the Jewish scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, provides us with a ringside seat to the story of a leader, well, whose moral authority gave him extraordinary influence during a time of national instability and uncertainty. Nehemiah, who you’re familiar with, Nehemiah was a Jewish exile who was living in Persia in the 5th century BC. He was the personal servant or attendant to King Artaxerxes of Persia, King Artaxerxes I.
And by this time, when this story takes place, Israel had been a vassal state for about 250 years. They had had no independence as a state for over 250 years. First, it was under the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, and now, they were paying taxes to the Persians. And about 130 years before the incident we’re gonna look at today, about 130 years before this incident, Cyrus the Great, who conquered Babylon, and you’ll remember Cyrus the Great from last week, Cyrus the Great, when he took over, he actually encouraged all the Jews living in Babylon to go home if they wanted to.
He just said, “Hey, you can go back to the homeland.” And a lot of them did, but a lot of them chose not to, and here’s why. The Jews that had grown up in Babylon, this is two or three generations they’d been there, they just didn’t feel much connection to the homeland, and Nehemiah’s family was actually one of those families. So many decided to stay put in what was now Persia. But those families that did return to Judah, they had a terrible time.
The nation had struggled economically and militarily for decades. The walls around the city hadn’t been repaired since Nebuchadnezzar invaded the city like 100-plus years earlier. Israel’s neighbors constantly took advantage of their weakness. They did everything in their power to stop Israel from becoming a super power once again. And if you’re familiar with Nehemiah’s story, you’ll remember that his heart was broken. His heart was broken over the plight of his people back in Judah. And so he began to pray, even though he had this very prestigious job, he began to pray for an opportunity to go back and to do something for the people of Judah, and eventually an opportunity presented itself.
Actually, he presented his opportunity to his boss, King Artaxerxes I. And he asked the king for permission to travel to Judah to restore the economy, specifically in the city of Jerusalem. And the king, not only granted his request, the king actually funded it. He even gave Nehemiah an official title. He would go back to Judah as the Governor of Judah. Now, if you grew up in church, you know that Nehemiah is best known for how quickly he was able to get the people of Jerusalem to rebuild the wall around the city. And he certainly gained a measure of moral authority in the process because, if you remember, he actually worked on the wall himself.
He didn’t expect other people to do what he wasn’t willing to do. But that’s not the aspect of this the story that I want us to focus on for the next few minutes. The broken down walls around the city of Jerusalem, that was just one of many problems facing the citizens in this city. After Nehemiah was there for several years, he discovered something even more insidious, even more dangerous than a few gaps in the wall. It took a while, but he eventually uncovered the root cause of the city’s economic woes.
Here’s what he discovered: Before he got there, wealthy landowners and merchants from the regions surrounding Judah had loaned money to the Jews at exorbitant interest rates, exorbitant. This decimated the economy. So when Nehemiah shows up, he actually used his own money to purchase and cancel and pay off almost all of those loans. So suddenly the people of the city, they’ve got money to spend, and it kinda jump-started the economy. These impoverished citizens had cash on-hand, right?
But as time went by, Nehemiah began to hear disturbing rumors, disgusting rumors. And after some investigating, here’s what he discovered: Wealthy Jews, many of them living in the city, began doing the very same thing that the outsiders had done. They began to do this to their own people. They were making high-interest loans to the poor, and then they were requiring the poor to put up wives and children, and farms as collateral for the loans. And then they would foreclose on the farms, and then they’d control the grain prices. And when all of this came to Nehemiah’s attention, he was furious. In fact, the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah, which is kind of his diary, describes exactly how he responded when he found out what had been going on.
Here’s what he wrote. He said, “When I heard, when I heard their outcry, the outcry of the poor, and I heard these charges, I was very angry. And I pondered them, I pondered them in my mind.” He didn’t respond or react immediately. “I pondered them in my mind, and then I accused the nobles and officials, and the most wealthy people in the city. And I told them, ‘You are charging your own people interest?’ So I called together, I called together a large meeting to deal with them, and here’s what I said.”
He said, “As far as possible, we,” talking about he and the folks that had come with him from Persia, “We have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles.” He said, “When I got here, the people of this city were in so much debt to outsiders, I used my own money to get them out of debt. I used my own money to do this. And now I find out that you are selling your own people? You’re selling your own people only for them to be sold back to us?” He’d already spent a fortune buying Jewish citizens out of slavery to foreigners, and now he’s having to do the same thing all over again. But this time, he’s having to pay off these loans that had been made by Jewish citizens, people right there in the community.
He goes on and he says this, and this won’t come as a surprise, “They kept quiet.” I bet they did. They kept quiet because they could find nothing to say. “So I continued,” he went on, he said, “So I continued, what you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?” He said, “Do you not realize what you’ve done?” Our neighbors are laughing at us. You’ve made us a laughing stock in the regions surrounding us. We’re not even keeping our own laws. We’re undermining our own economy. We’re undermining our own security.” But he’s not done. He said, “I and my brothers,” the people that came with him, “and my men are also lending money and grain but let us stop charging interest.”
Now according to Torah, Jews were actually encouraged to loan money to other Jews, especially to the poor, but they couldn’t charge interest, and they were not allowed to take important property as collateral like land or work animals, but that these wealthy Jews were guilty of doing all of that. So Nehemiah points his finger and he says, “Look, give back to them, give back to them immediately their fields and their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, and also the interest that you are charging them.” They were basically just taking everything they could from these citizens.
And how did they respond? Well, here’s what they said, “We will give it back, and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” Now, Nehemiah is no fool and he does not trust them. So here’s what happened next. He says, “Then I summoned the priest, and I made the nobles and officials to take an oath,” basically, he made them swear on the Bible, that’s kind of the modern day parallel to this, “I made them take an oath to do what they had promised.” And he said, “I also, I shook out the folds of my robe and I said, ‘In this way, may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise.'” And the people did as they had promised.
Just like that, they returned everything they’d taken, everything they’d stolen, canceled all of those loans. Now, if their response seems a little bit unrealistic, a little bit idealistic like, “Yeah, that’s what I would expect from a Bible story,” you would be correct. But when you know the backstory of what was going on for all the years leading up to this encounter, their response makes a lot more sense. The reason Nehemiah’s words carried so much weight was the way he had conducted himself for the 12 years he’d been back in the city of Jerusalem.
His reputation preceded him and his reputation stood in stark contrast to all the previous governors. Here’s the reason his words carried so much weight. “Moreover,” he says, “Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until,” he says, “until his thirty-second year—,” that is twelve years, this is the way he’s helping them understand the context. “For 12 years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor.” Now, this is important, as the governor of Judah and as the Governor of the city, basically, Nehemiah actually had a legal right to collect taxes for personal income, plus he was guaranteed a free allotment of food from the farmers in the regions.
And in his 12 years as governor, get this, in his 12 years as governor, he never once exercised those rights, he never once exercised that entitlement. He paid out of his own pocket and this again, it was in stark contrast to the governors who’d come before him. In fact, this is what he says, he says, “But the earlier governors—, the governors before me, those preceding me—, they placed a heavy burden on the people and they took forty shekels of silver, which was a fortune from them, in addition to food and wine, and not only the governor, their assistants, the assistants to the governors, also lorded it over the people,” that the previous governors had abused their authority and the wealthy citizens, of course, had taken their cues from who? From the previous governors.
But I love this next statement. He says, “But out of reverence, out of reverence for God, I did not act like that. Instead I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work,” that is I didn’t ask anyone to do what I wasn’t willing to do myself, “and we did not acquire any land.” Now, why does he throw this in? Property ownership, in those days, it was a sign of power, and Nehemiah is saying, “Look, I didn’t go there either. I did not enrich myself at the expense of the people.” He did exactly what he came to do, rebuild the wall, and restore the economy. He says, “I never once, I never once demanded the food allotted or entitled to the governor because the demands were so heavy on these people.”
So 12 years of walking his talk added weight to his words. 12 years of expecting of himself what he expected of others, gave him influence he otherwise would not have had. The life he’d lived, the decisions he’d made, his genuine concern for the people, his lifestyle, his lack of entitlement, all of this shamed the nobles into submission. Now that is good leadership, and that’s the kind of leader we would like to follow and that’s the kind of leader we should all become. And it really goes back to this one idea, moral authority, moral authority.
It’s a tricky thing. It’s a tricky thing because it takes years to acquire but it only takes one unguarded moment to lose. We’re always one decision, one word, one reaction away from damaging the thing, well, the thing that gives us influence, the thing that gives us influence beyond our position. It’s always important, moral authority is always important but it is an essential, it is absolutely an essential during times of disruption and uncertainty. Here’s why, because the people who look to us, especially, right now they wanna know they can trust us and you know this.
Trust is earned, and trust is influence. Now to bring this into sharp and perhaps uncomfortable focus, I want you to think about this. You don’t respect your parents because of what they required you to do. Your respect or your lack of respect is determined by what they required of themselves, right, the life they lived. And the same is true for you, and the same is true for me. Our lives, our lives always speak louder than our words, and our lives add weight to our words. So with all that in mind, I wanna give you three gauges to keep your eye on. Three gauges to keep your eye on that will help you protect your influence, that will help you protect and guard your moral authority.
Three areas that may indicate you’re on the verge of losing, losing what is virtually impossible to regain once it’s lost. Number one, pay close attention, pay close attention to your internal and external response to authority. How do you respond to authority? How do you respond internally and externally? A lot of people have lost their moral authority, have lost their entire reputation by how they responded or responded inappropriately to authority. And here’s why I say that. If you consider yourself, if you consider yourself too important to be under, then you are probably too immature to be over, so pay attention, pay attention to how you respond to authority.
The second thing to keep your eye on is this, your sense of entitlement, your sense of entitlement. Listen to the excuses you make to justify behavior, behavior that you would not approve of in other people. Imagine, imagine someone you respect, imagine someone you respect doing or saying what you’re contemplating doing or saying. That has stopped me in my tracks more times than I can remember and, honestly, more times than I even want to admit.
And here’s the thing about entitlement, you know this, entitlement is a slippery slope. Maybe, think about it, maybe you do deserve it, whatever it is.
Nehemiah deserved it. But here’s the thing, if taking, if taking what you deserve, don’t miss this, if taking what you deserve undermines your influence, your moral authority, think twice, because odds are, whatever it is that you deserve, whatever it is that you think you deserve, the day may come when you would be willing to return it for the influence and the respect you surrendered in order to get it.
Last thing, last thing to pay attention to. Pay attention to those imaginary conversations. Your imaginary conversations that are an expression of frustration and anger, your anger and frustration with people. It only needs to leak one time for you to lose your credibility forever, because come on, I’m sorry? I’m sorry doesn’t erase anybody’s memory. And when you do mess up, fess up, quick, own it. That’s the only way to rebuild moral authority. Come on, we trust people who make mistakes, we do not trust people who make excuses. We don’t trust them because we know they have their own best interest in mind.
Moral authority, it’s an essential during times of disruption and uncertainty. Now to be clear, this is important, moral authority is not an essential for leadership. You can lead without it. You can parent without it. You can manage without it. But you cannot be a leader worth following without it. You will not maintain your influence without it.
Never forget this, people are usually defined, we talked about this last week, people are usually defined by their final chapter, not necessarily their finest chapter. And here’s why, because people are generally celebrated and remembered for their moral authority, not their positional authority, and the same will be true for you. Now, to help you remember this, here’s a prayer that I’ve prayed for, again, 25 or 30 years. I bet I pray this prayer at least once a day, sometimes multiple times a day. I just made this up, these are my words, but maybe this is something you wanna carry into the week.
Here’s what I pray all the time, “Heavenly father, give me the wisdom to know what’s right and the courage to do what’s right, even when it costs me. Heavenly father, give me the wisdom to know what’s right and the courage to do what’s right even when it costs me.” Your accomplishments, your accomplishments may make your name known, but your character, your moral authority will determine what people associate with your name, so guard it at all cost. And we will pick it up right there next time in part three of Leading Through.