Open Perspective: Why do leaders lose legitimate authority?


Leaders are always under the radar for scrutiny. They are always being assessed and critiqued because consciously or not, fairly or unfairly citizens always demand perfection from leaders. People want strong, authentic, competent and truthful leaders.

Where leaders fall short of leadership values that people hold, conflicts and mistrust set in which disturb fundamentally the relationship between the two parties – leader and citizen. The net effect is that what authority leaders might have had over issues and people begins to wane.

Most leaders lose authority due to hypocrisy; the tendency to put on a false countenance and personality of great virtue and character which hides one’s real personality. Citizens will withdraw their respect for leaders who project a ‘better than thou’ attitude or a ‘do as I say not as I do’ culture, criticising others for behaviour that they themselves engage in.


Hypocrisy is a great detractor in matters of leadership as it demonstrates that the leader cannot live the life that they demand of others and cannot therefore be the best example to the people.

Let us illustrate this point:

There are leaders who teach fidelity and go on to judge others rather harshly when they are just as indulgent or worse. In our economic situation, leaders will lose authority in talking austerity yet walking spendthrift or preach accountability but resist when called to account.


Leaders whatever the level must accept that they are accountable for their own conduct and performance in the position as much as they are for everything that takes place while they are in leadership.

Another cause for loss of authority and respect from citizens is posing. That is being unreal and inauthentic. Many leaders – due to lack of self-belief – present themselves falsely projecting a personally that is not their own in order to impress and survive.

Others will pose negatively by projecting a sense of arrogance or invincibility and becoming morally lost, to the disappointed agitation of citizens.

Leaders may be liked demonstrably but not really respected due to the faults of posing and hypocrisy. In order to become real and authentic, leaders should look at leadership through the eyes of the followers and live their message.

The truth of the matter is that people want to be led by a genuine person who is authentic and natural and not artificial role-players. People appreciate ‘simple living and high thinking’ leaders to flamboyant showmen

Perhaps more critical, leaders must be achievers to remain relevant. Leaders will lose authority due to irrelevance in not being able to showcase achievements and success stories that continue to spark people’s imagination.

A leader is becoming irrelevant when they are always on the back foot, giving excuses for failure and offering no palpable solutions to problems. They are irrelevant when they don’t seem to understand people’s daily struggles.

This is particularly true and much worse in times of hardship when people have high expectations for the leader to create hope and to make life better for the people.

White lies no matter how small and harmless destroy otherwise gifted and capable leaders. Similarly exaggerating even what is true puts people off for people expect leaders to be moderate and objectively truthful including admission of error and failure.

Of course in society, people tell a lot of lies but when it is leaders lying, the judgement is often harsh. The basic moral is ‘tell it as it is’ and leaders will gain the respect of the people; tell half-truths untruths and hyperboles, and leaders risk reputational demise.

Leadership requires clarity and focus. So fuzziness or failure to focus is a serious minus. Yet far too many leaders are fuzzy and obscure, wandering all over without clarity in matters of policy plans and action.

Being scatted with regard to policy and projects confuses both people and institutions which look to leaders for clarity on what needs to be done. Expectations are always that leaders will spell out and pursue a clear agenda which citizens will then support.

It is vital that while citizens think and talk about the problems affecting them leaders think and talk about solutions to people’s problems.

There is no detractor to leadership bigger than incompetence or inability to deliver in the leadership role. Leaders of all levels lose moral high ground and authority if they just cannot perform their duties competently.

In all societies people want and follow strong able leaders not efulefus. Leaders are always held in high standards and it is wise for leaders themselves to be aware of and value this basic reality and meet it squarely in fulfilling their role.

Related to incompetence is wasted authority. Many leaders have the tendency to delay decisions that people hold as urgent and critical and this detracts from the confidence that people have in their leaders.

It is not uncommon for leaders and the systems they preside over to overanalyse issues and to make things look more complicated than they really are; a tendency to over-consult and wasting time on peripheral details or seeking consensus on what requires a decision.

This is wasting authority to decide. In seeking political correctness many a leader has unwittingly undermined official authority. Sadly, sometimes leaders waste authority because they are not conscious of their power, a mark of incompetence.

Not least leaders lose authority when they show cowardice. A lot happens in leadership that calls for presence of mind, moral and emotional courage. Failure to demonstrate courage tends to reduce what trust people may place in the leader.

No matter how high the education achieved; how complex the skills developed; or how affable the personality of the leader cowardice or lack of courage in times when it is demanded can be costly to the authority of the leader.

What is my last word on this?

Malawi is going through excruciating pangs of re-birth. This renaissance demands leaders who are determined to liberate the people from 50 years of abuse and exploitation of so many by so few.

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