Leadership Lessons From Turkey’s Unrest: The Rise Of Moral Authority

In the 21st century, being in power doesn’t mean having power. Dov Seidman, author and CEO of the corporate good governance company LRN, expands on ideas he discusses in today’s Thomas Friedman column about the critical mistakes of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Leadership Lessons From Turkey’s Unrest: The Rise Of Moral Authority

Once again a Mideast nation, this time Turkey, has been rocked by civil unrest.


At first, this might seem surprising given that Turkey, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, has long been admired as a pillar of democracy in the Islamic world. Yet, on May 28, Istanbul’s Taksim Square saw the brutal police eviction of protestors metastasize overnight into nationwide protests resulting in multiple deaths and thousands of injuries and arrests.

After weeks of protests and confrontations, it remains unclear whether or not Turkey will undergo the political upheaval we saw during the Arab Spring. In this case, the crisis seems to stem from an erosion of its democracy over the 10-year tenure of its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Media reports attest that members of his party, the AKP (the Justice and Development Party), have demonstrated an increasingly winner-take-all notion of democracy. Their majoritarian rule extends to packing the courts and intimidating the press into self-censorship. As a result the government is fast losing legitimacy.

Even a proffer of a referendum over the inciting incident of the protests was rejected by protesters, showing how deep the breach of trust extends.

What Erdogan may or may not understand is that the real referendum being decided upon today by the Turkish people relates not to how Turkey should be led in the 21st century, but how the Turkish people wish to be led. Like too many leaders before him, Erdogan has mistakenly misread the basis of his authority as residing in the head of government, rather emanating from its people.

Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal was himself a reformer, westernizing the republic, adopting a policy of neutrality, and presiding over the emancipation of women. When Turkey officially became a republic in 1923, it adopted the custom of using last names for the first time. Citizens were asked to choose their last names and, in a sense, choose their destinies. Mustafa Kemal chose Ataturk, a name that literally means “father of Turkey.”


Erdogan, too, until recently, had been regarded as a visionary, navigating Turkey as a fulcrum between the East and West, while building the world’s 17th largest economy. Recently, he lost sight of what his countrymen want, despite being known as a “Baba” (“Papa” in Turkish).

Already in 1923, Ataturk intuitively understood that there are (just) two kinds of authority: formal and moral. He grasped that power originates not in the edicts of its top leader, but in the people themselves, while Erdogan appears to view his authority as singular, choosing to wield his power over the Turkish people, rather than through them.

If anything, Turkey’s influence has come from its rich diversity. It is an amalgam of East and West, particularly in the balance of secular and religious forces. It is a democracy with a long tradition of celebrating pluralism. Of late, Erdogan has tested this, calling protester efforts “nothing more than the minority’s attempt to dominate the majority.” The lack of a two-way conversation has eclipsed discontent over the loss of a park, rankling the public because such discourse goes against the country’s culture.

In today’s interconnected world, where power is shifting to individuals who can easily connect and combine their power exponentially (into a greater force for good or bad), moral authority is now so much more important than formal authority.

Business leaders can learn from Erdogan’s overreach. Just as Erdogan’s majoritarianism is eroding his political legitimacy, we see command-and-control management in CEOs and managers who won’t let go of formal authority–much to their detriment among those they presume to lead. Yet we all must understand the world has changed.

How we can make, or re-make, ourselves into leaders whose power stems from moral authority rather than formal authority? Here are some starting points:


Conduct a Moral Audit

The ancient Greeks advised individuals to “know thyself.” To do so requires a moral audit. What do you stand for? Why do you get out of bed every day? How do you derive meaning from your life and work? And to what extent do those answers reconcile and resonate with the daily activities of those you lead?

When these audits expose gaps between our rhetoric and actual behavior, we need to go to work, turning to mentors, family, and advisors. With their help, we can develop and strengthen a more contemporary leadership style, including tapping into the human values that connects people and keeps them connected: empathy, humility, rigor about the truth, and consistency, as well as courage and resiliency.

Elevate Meaningful Connections Over Family or Institutional Connections

The days of leadership as a birthright are fading everywhere. Turkey’s leader, for example, has confused being in power with having power. But you don’t get moral authority simply from being elected (or amassing personal wealth). Moral authority is about character, something you have to continue to earn by how you behave, build trust with your people, and empower people with the truth. Every time you exercise formal authority–by calling out the police or declaring the “era of white bread is over”–you deplete it. Every time you exercise moral authority, leading by example, treating people with respect, you strengthen it.

Extend Trust


Old-school leaders expect their trust to be earned by others; 21st century leaders extend their trust to inspire greater collaboration, commitment, and innovation among citizens, employees, or family members. For organizations and governments in particular, that means providing the freedom for people to take the right kinds of risks and to dissent without fear of retaliation.

As the “public squares” of our world continue to erupt, more and more leaders–be they corporate, political, or social–need to find new ways of awakening the aspirations and commitment of their people–a power that connects, not one that commands.

Bottom line, Prime Minister Erdogan’s leadership style must evolve. So far, in responding to dissent, he has vacillated between conciliatory and retaliatory behavior. Instead, he would be wise to emulate courageous leaders who have moved beyond old-school methods to get results–collaborating around a values-based mission that inspires loyalty and hope in people.

Erdogan doesn’t have to look too far for examples of coalition-building–the three major Turkish soccer teams are already offering up a great example of wielding power through dialogue and deep connection. In Turkey, loyalty to one’s team is unconditional–it’s not uncommon for fistfights to erupt on the streets between fans wearing opposing jerseys. But during the past weeks, these teams have set aside their tribal differences. Protesting arm in arm, even wearing each others’ jerseys in solidarity, they have unveiled a new flag in Gezi Park that combines the colors of all three teams.

Erdogan would do well to follow the example of–and tap into–this coalition of soccer fans to earn his moral authority. Until he does, his own legitimacy will continue to contract.

Dov Seidman is the CEO of LRN, and author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything. On Twitter: @DovSeidman.


[Image: Flickr user Newsonline]