The Credibility Factor—What We Expect of Our Leaders

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

[***(EDITOR’S NOTE: While traveling abroad, Tom asked colleagues to guest-author his column.***]

The cynics are winning. Over the last decade, and especially during the last five years, we have seen an aggressive erosion of employee confidence in management.

Substantially fewer of us than five years ago believe that our business and government leaders are capable or trustworthy enough to guide us effectively. There is a growing sense that management is motivated more by greed than concern for the customer, employees, or the country.

At a time when executives are exhorting their employees to boost productivity, improve quality, and be more competitive globally, more and more workers are responding with a shrug.

* According to research by professors Donald Kanter and Philip Mirvis reported in their 1989 book The Cynical Americans, 43 percent of American workers are “cynical,” 41 percent are “upbeat,” and 16 percent are “wary.”

* A 1989 survey by Lou Harris and Associates revealed that only 39 percent of office workers believe it is “very true” that management is “honest, upright, and ethical,” while 87 percent said it was “very important” for management to be that way.

* A 1988 survey by opinion Research Corporation found that managers, professionals, and hourly employees all have significantly less faith in management’s ability and veracity than just five years before.

* Industry Week reports that 62 percent of managers believe that executive pay is too high. The magazine writes, “Throughout industry—because of exorbitant executive pay—morale is low and cynicism is high. Executives had better look out!”

These attitudes are not confined to business. Government officials and politicians score even lower on the confidence scale.

Our own research findings have been strikingly consistent. Time and again, we see a clear message about the essential qualities people expect of their leaders. Our surveys show that people want leaders who are honest, competent, forward-looking, and inspiring.

In assessing the believability of sources of information—whether newscaster or president, salesperson or manager—researchers typically evaluate communicators on three criteria: trustworthiness,
expertise, and dynamism. These qualities, above all others, establish a person’s credibility. (They also correspond to the expected leadership qualities of honesty, competence, and inspiration.)

People are more cynical today than a decade ago chiefly because our leaders do not live up to our expectations. Put simply, they do not do what they say they will do! We have witnessed the S&L crisis, Wall Street scandals, down-sizings, and market share losses to foreign competitors, all while top executive pay goes through the roof. We conclude that our managements just can’t be trusted. And in leadership as in marketing, perception is all there is.

Leadership is a special bond between leader and followers. The relationship requires constant attention. Leadership credibility is earned. Here are six actions that can help you build and maintain your credibility:

Clarify your values. Values guide how we feel, what we say, what we think, and how we act. As a leader, you have responsibility to translate your values into a set of guiding principles for your organization.

Identify what your constituents want. Leaders bring people together and unite them in a common cause. They develop a deep understanding of their followers’ collective values and desires. Go out and talk to all your constituents and find out what they value.

Build consensus. Credible leaders honor the diversity of their many constituencies, and they also find a common ground of agreement on which everyone can base their interactions. Publish the shared values, and show others what you all have in common.

Communicate shared values with conviction. Whether in one-on-one sessions or in large forums, in conversations or presentations, leaders are effective in bringing values to life through examples and stories. Write and tell the stories of people who have lived the values.

Stand up for your beliefs. Let the shared values be your guide and you will maintain the respect and trust of your constituents. Seek counsel in troubling situations. Stand up, talk straight, confront inconsistencies, and support others for taking stands.

Lead by example. Leaders demonstrate what is important by how they spend their time, the questions ask, the people they see, and the behaviors they reward. Audit your actions, establish systems that reinforce your values, and when necessary, dramatically demonstrate your commitment to shared values.

Rebuilding the leadership credibility lost over the last few years will require daily, vigilant attention. Take the time to act conscientiously and consistently. Leadership, after all, is in the eyes of the followers.

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner are coauthors of The Leadership Challenge (Jossey-Bass).

(c) 1990 TPG Communications.

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