Building (In)credible Leaders

Building (In)credible Leaders

By Steve Rumery, Ph.D.

Martin Luther King, Jr Monument in Washington, DCThere is nothing more important to leaders and organizations than credibility. Simply put, credibility is the degree to which something or someone is believable. In business, credibility is the essential glue that keeps teams and organizations together and moving forward. Absent credibility, leaders and organizations lose their ability to influence others to achieve shared goals.

In our work with clients, we’ve often explored how credibility is gained and lost. For leaders, credibility seems to be gained through their personal knowledge and actions. If an employee’s expertise and actions are consistent with what is expected of an effective leader, then the leader will be seen as credible. For organizations, the same applies at a macro level. If an organization’s expertise and actions are consistent with what is expected of an effective organization, it will be seen as credible.

Of course, the last time I checked, credibility was not a new idea in business. Leadership credibility models abound, and they often focus on things like technical competence, management and life experiences, maintaining composure in difficult situations, showing empathy for people, and the most important of all, demonstrating integrity.

What is potentially a new idea is the importance of engaging with people in a way to create on-going demonstrations of credibility-related behaviors. For leaders, this means being intentional in exhibiting credibility-related behaviors in situations where people can observe them. For organizations, this means creating opportunities for customers and employees to interact with the larger organization in credibility-enhancing ways (through transactions, positive product experiences, engaging commercials, etc.).

For example, research by LRI consistently shows the importance of follow-up when leaders and organizations make improvements on areas that need attention. One study on 5,756 leaders across four different organizations demonstrated that the degree to which a leader follows up with raters on their action plan is one of the strongest predictors of credibility (n-weighted r of .65; click here for more details on the study). Another study on over 20,000 employees completing an engagement survey showed a similar result for a financial services organization. Specifically, the degree to which employees were confident that the organization was going to act on the results of the survey was a top five predictor of pride in the organization (a.k.a. affective commitment) and whether or not the organization was seen as improving.

But what of leaders and organizations that are already seen as credible and effective? Do they need to be intentional in demonstrating their credibility? The answer of course is yes, particularly if they want to move from being credible to being (in)credible. (In)credible is the degree to which leaders and organizations are seen as extraordinary and awe-inspiring. Being an (in)credible leader means exhibiting expertise and behaviors that far exceed expectations to the point that expectations are actually changed or warped.

Examples of leaders who have made the leap from credible to (in)credible abound (think of Martin Luther King Jr. and his transformation from Baptist minister to Civil Rights leader; or Pope Francis and his recent promotion of open dialogue; or President Obama in his transformation in the 2008 presidential election). When you look at the ascension of leaders from credible to (in)credible, you see two prominent things. First, each leader was extremely intentional in demonstrating their credibility. They did so by demonstrating their credibility over and over and over. Second, unlike their credible peers, these (in)credible leaders each did something extraordinary. They completely and utterly warped, shaped, and otherwise altered the expectations that people had about the leader. This is why every new (in)credible leader seems to be offering something unique or different; the leader is intentionally bending or warping people’s expectations.

In our own internal research on (in)credible leaders, we have come across a couple of key behaviors worth mentioning. First, as discussed earlier, (in)credible leaders are very intentional in their efforts to reinforce their credibility in front of the people they wish to influence. Second, (in)credible leaders become acutely aware of the expectations of others which can often vary across different stakeholder groups, and they work to transform those expectations in new and innovative ways that excite people. Finally, (in)credible leaders keep their eyes and ears open to understand the impact of their actions and they modify them if needed to maintain their credibility and to continue to transform people’s expectations.

In closing, we know that credibility matters when examining the effectiveness of leaders and their organizations. But how leaders and organizations move from low credibility to high credibility, and then from high credibility to (in)credibility, differs. Building credibility requires meeting the expectations of others regarding leaders, while building (in)credibility requires reshaping these expectations in new and exciting ways.

If you have any thoughts, questions or comments regarding this blog post, please send them to research@lri.com and use the title of this post in the subject line.

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