The Overarching Importance of Leadership Credibility

People are bone-tired of leaders they don't feel they can believe.

Posted Oct 18, 2015

It comes down to this: People are bone-tired of leaders they don’t feel they can believe.

Two very different situations in the news have reminded of this lately.  Two completely different situations, involving VW and Hillary Clinton, are united by a common – frayed – credibility thread.

I don’t want to overstate the similarities. The VW emissions cheating mess appears to be one of clearly calculated and highly sophisticated deceit. The Clinton email mess appears to be a more ambiguous “I’ll play by my own rules because I like to” kind of problem.

But regardless of the similarities and differences, the broader issue of leadership credibility feels to me worth highlighting.  Fact is, people are just plain weary of leaders who routinely default to the expedient rather than the truthful. Accordingly, here are five observations on the credibility front.

1. Credibility, or lack thereof, accounts for the surprisingly unshakable persistency of what would seem, on the face of it, to be a pretty minor email issue.  Whether or not one likes Hillary (and my point today is to take no dog in this fight), an awful lot of people simply don’t believe her, and the heavy favorite has spent months paying a heavy political price.

2. Perceived credibility can help explain the unexpected popularity at different ends of the political spectrum of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.  Whether or not one likes or agrees with them (again, have no dog in this fight), my sense is they’re both perceived by their own supporters as credibly standing up for what they believe in.  In a land where evasion is commonly the verbal currency of choice, straight talk, no matter its flavor, has powerful popular appeal.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

3. Exploded credibility will dog one of my all-time favorite brands (which I wrote about earlier for Forbes) for years to come.  Poor Volkswagen, suffering from the very worst kind of wound: self-inflicted.  For a brand built proudly on decades of integrity, “Think Small” has a whole new meaning.  Restoring credibility has got to be the main job – basically the only job – of its new leadership.

4. Management credibility is always a meaty issue for watchdogs everywhere to keep a watch on.  One of the things that most disturbed me in my decades in the business world was how persistently folks in management would think they could spin versions of reality that showed unpleasant events in a more pleasant light, and feel that relatively bovine audiences (especially employees) would happily believe and accept it.

5. Au contraire, management credibility matters hugely to employees.  Best never to underestimate them.  Smart employees have finely honed ‘spin detectors.’  They know truth and spin when they see it.  Any management lacking credibility will soon find itself lacking loyalty.

Net-net, credibility is an asset to protect, no game to play casually with.  We want to believe our leaders will be unfailingly straight with us, and why shouldn’t we?  Whether you’re a giant global automaker or a presidential candidate or a family business in West Podunk, once people start to doubt you, you’ve got problems.  Big problems.  Simple as that.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).

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