Formal Authority Is Not Moral Authority

By

Leonard Zwelling

Tom Friedman was a guest on Meet The Press on Sunday, October 22. He made a distinction between formal and moral authority. He made it simply. President Trump has formal authority, but has no moral authority. That is why he had to send out General John Kelly to lie about what a criticizing congresswoman said about Trump’s remarks to a Gold Star widow. In prevaricating for Trump, General Kelly gave up some of his moral authority that Sarah Saunders tried to invoke in the subsequent news conference—unsuccessfully. The one thing that videotape and twitter can do is undercut your moral authority—fast. The accusations of grandstanding that General Kelly flung at the Florida congresswoman and her previous appearance at a dedication ceremony for an FBI building in her district in 2015 were simply untrue as the video showed. General Kelly’s four stars lost some luster. He has yet to apologize.

When those with moral authority due to their accomplishments, service, or previous behavior excuse or explain the behavior of their superiors who have only formal authority, they give up the moral authority that they have earned.

This is what happened to the Executive Vice Presidents at MD Anderson, some of whom once had moral authority along with formal authority, but in apologizing and excusing Dr. DePinho’s formal authority to make a mess of things, they gave up their moral authority and were eventually removed as ineffective. To be candid, one of those Executive Vice Presidents was warned about associating too closely with DePinho. By me. Too bad for him he didn’t listen.

Another level of vice presidents was cleaned out recently and one can only hope that there will be more to follow so that Dr. Pisters, someone with both formal and moral authority, can fill his own org chart with people who share his higher values and best of intentions. (Did Dr. Pisters really sanction the latest Hahn appointees to be interim CAO and Chief Science Officer? I find this hard to believe.)

For this to work, all of the new leaders must act with both the moral and formal authority of their positions in mind. This can only occur if decisions are thoughtful, careful and transparently explained. They need to be arrived at with much faculty input and with shared governance a prominent part of the decision making process. In addition, regulatory restrictions that handcuff research must be minimized, yet never completely abandoned for fear of returning to the days of unbridled conflict of interest and self-dealing. Human subjects research ought to be of the highest scientific and ethical quality, but not prevented by regulatory hoops through which the faculty have to jump. Operations supporting patient care ought to do just that, support patient care not rule it. And most critically, the leadership must constantly communicate what it is doing, why and how, even if that means having to make difficult choices in public.

Formal authority is given. It comes from the Board of Regents to Dr. Pisters and to his designees. Moral authority is earned. It is gained over time, but can be lost in an instant. Just ask Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.

It shouldn’t take a #MeToo moment to assure everyone that he or SHE is an equal partner in the business and cultural endeavor that is making a movie or caring for the sick. If we all pledge to strive for the moral high ground, moral authority will prevail.

Leonard Zwelling