“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. [He or she] is the one who gets people to do the greatest things.” —Ronald Reagan
Leadership is in disrepute and the situation is getting worse. It is the purpose of this four-part series to explore the sources of credibility that provide a leader the right to lead. The complete credibility model will be presented in part four.
Leadership does not just magically appear. A mysterious leadership anointing does not fall on a person one day and change their life. It is not a secret potion that is added to our drinking water. It is not even something that everyone possesses. In fact, many try to lead and many fail. Many who try to lead are simply ignored by those who could follow but don’t. (Doesn’t that fact alone answer the silly assertion that anyone can be a leader?) Why do some succeed in gaining followers and others do not? What are the sources of credibility that attract others to follow some people but not others?
I. What Is Credibility?
Many say they cannot define credibility but they know it when they see it. Credibility is invisible but, like the wind, one can watch its impact. In essence credibility is the reason one person gives credence t0 another person. It can be defined in various ways: trustworthiness, reliability, integrity, authority, standing or believability.
II. There Is No Leadership Without Credibility
Leadership cannot exist without credibility. Credibility gives one person “standing” in the eyes of another and therefore that person is considered top be reliable to guide and direct others’ thoughts and actions. Credibility is applicable regardless of whether a motive is good or evil. For example a terrorist may be credible because it is believed they would carry out a threat. Note this is different than influence. Any person may influence another person with a one-time thought or action. (Have you ever crossed the street because of a person in your path you wished to avoid? Nothing was said or implied but action was taken based on what was observed. Influence!) While every person alive at some time will influence others (for good or for bad), influence alone is not leadership. Many so-called “thought leaders” have erred in defining leadership as influence. In doing so they have propagated the delusion that because all people can influence others, everyone is or can be a leader. Nothing is further from the truth. Leadership is a combination of sustained direction, sustained guidance and sustained influence over time that stems from the credibility the leader possesses. The core is not influence but credibility.
III. Where Does Credibility Come From?
There are multiple sources of credibility. Some of those sources are personal in nature and others are professional. Leaders’ derive their credibility from these sources but no leader draws his or her credibility to lead from all the sources. Consequently, leaders have credibility strengths as well as weaknesses.
Knowing one’s credibility strengths and weaknesses is important. These strengths and weaknesses are the reason why some people will follow a leader and others will not. They also are the reason why every leader will face situations in which his or her credibility is in question. (This is why the wise leader shares leadership with others.) Therefore it is important for leaders to understand the sources of credibility. It will help leaders understand why some staff trusts them all the time; others may have trust in them in certain situations but not others; and, some staff never believes in them at all.
IV. The Litmus Test Of Credibility
There is one source of credibility that is paramount and that applies to all leaders. It is personal in nature and it becomes the one significant against which his or her credibility will eventually be judged. That source of credibility is the person’s character: who they are, what they believe and what they stand for. Character includes core traits (honesty, humility, concern for others, etc.) as well as the leaders vision of what is possible (vision, core beliefs, dreams, etc.)
The specific character traits that are important for leadership are defined more by the followers than the leader. In some instances these expectations may be unreasonable but the decision as to what the follower is looking for in a leader rests with each individual follower. (We often read posts and articles describing the core traits of successful leaders and the views are usually all over the board. The reason for this variation is that the choice is not the leader’s but the follower’s. Bottom line is that different people value different traits.)
The starting point of leadership and credibility is this: people see in others traits, characteristics or a vision they admire and with which they want to be associated.
There are three factors that impact how a person’s character impacts credibility.
First, the person establishes initial (and often superficial) credibility when they articulate their values and beliefs. On an organizational level this message is communicated in mission and core values statements as well as in senior leader’s words. (Yes, an organization can be credible, or not!) On an individual basis, that message comes from the leader as they discuss what they honor, value and believe in.
Second, one must recognize that credibility remains in the eye of the beholder. As leaders describe what they honor, value and believe in, people assess their words and are either attracted to or repelled from what the leader says. Others must accept and agree with the leader’s espoused values and beliefs as valid in order for the leader to be credible. Today, as never before, it is expected that leaders conform and hold to certain socially acceptable values and beliefs. To the degree this does not happen, and even though the leader may live out his or her stated values consistently, the leader’s credibility is damaged if “followers” do not agree with those beliefs and values. This brings up the issue that a leader of sterling character and values may not be accepted by a group of people who reject his or her beliefs. Therefore a great leader may be totally ineffective because the group is “unleadable” at least to that leader. This raises a serious question about the state of leadership today. Are leaders really that inept or are followers becoming unleadable?
Third, after a person has articulated their position, he or she must model and practice their stated beliefs. The consistency with which the leader does this forms a pattern that becomes the evidence of character. It is not enough to articulate values, beliefs and vision but the leader has to “walk the walk”. Leaders earn a deeper level of credibility as people observe them living consistently with their stated values and beliefs and they lose credibility when they do not.
It should be noted that in addition to what a person honors values and believes in, others also listen carefully to a leader’s promises and commitments (both stated and implied). As these commitments are carried out as promised, credibility (and trust) grows. When they are not carried out, the leader commits what the Center for Creative Leadership terms the only “unpardonable sin of leadership”, the failure to keep promises. One of the reasons that many leaders are not credible is that they make multiple promises to placate others but they are not willing or able to fulfill those promises. The leader may not even be serious about the commitment. They simply tell someone something to buy time or get the person “off their back”. While the leader many not be serious about the commitment, he or she can be sure the employee is. As a result, when commitments are not kept, the leader soon earns the reputation that “he or she will promise anything but delivers on nothing.”
One would hope that strong character would be a common attribute of all leaders but this is clearly not the case. The Center for Creative Leadership reports that one of the major reasons that executives derail is because of their “inability to elicit trust”. A study at the University of Massachusetts reports that 60% of adults cannot have a 10-minute conversation without lying at least once. SHRM reports that only 28% of employees rate their leadership as extremely trustworthy. One only needs to observe political leaders’ recent behavior to see how scarce genuine character is.
It often takes time for true character to reveal itself. Therefore, people who were assumed to be credible may be proven, over time, to lack the practice of their character that is required to be both credible and a leader. The reverse is also true. A person may be truthful but not believed. Over time that person may be proved to be right and credible. Eventually character, or the lack or it, will impact all other sources of credibility.
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Next posts in the series:
Part 2: Personal Sources of Credibility
Part 3: Professional Sources of Credibility
Part 4: Putting It All Together