Without Credibility, Leadership Falters

Regardless of rank or role, credibility is key to long-term success.

Posted Oct 07, 2020

Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

President Trump’s recent coronavirus stay at Walter Reed hospital, and the many questions surrounding it, shined a bright light yet again on the issue of leadership credibility. Numerous questions were raised by the media and were answered with varying degrees of precision and evasion by the president’s doctors.

When did the president test positive for coronavirus? When was his last negative test? What was the condition of his lungs? Might he have pneumonia or inflammation? How long would he be contagious? There were more questions than answers, and the answers often partially but not entirely addressed the questions. 

Regardless of one’s opinion of the president or his doctors — from “never Trumper” to loyal supporter — the issue of credibility is an important one for all leaders, from the federal government to the shop floor. No matter one's rank or role, it's critical to long-term success.

When credibility is lost 

In business, one can at times get away with all kinds of bad managerial behavior — from crazy decisions to favoritism to erratic actions, temper tantrums and dubious judgment — and still recover to hold onto one's job and fight another day. But when one fully loses credibility, he or she is in deep trouble.

When your own people no longer believe or trust you, it becomes near-impossible to do a job effectively. My own experience, from what I lived through or observed over four decades in the workforce, was that, regardless of one's role or level, the most effective managers and leaders had excellent credibility: People believed and trusted them. When they didn't, all bets were off. 

Credibility is fundamental, a character issue. It matters hugely to employees on an everyday basis: If I can't believe what you say, why should I listen to you? Why should I follow you?

The speed of trust

While credibility has an ethical and moral dimension, it's also more than that: It's plain old good business. Management educator and author Stephen Covey developed a great concept he called the "speed of trust." By that, he meant that when you fully trust someone, it enables you to work with them more efficiently and effectively than if you're constantly worrying about them, doubting them, or assessing and questioning their abilities. Trust allows deals to get done more quickly, projects to flow more smoothly, and managers and employees to interact more satisfactorily and productively. It's a relationship lubricant that helps business get done.

Which is why it's in everyone's interest to maintain it. Returning to our recent example at Walter Reed hospital, doctors tend to be highly trusted figures. They're keepers of a vast, hard-earned body of knowledge. When their motives or accuracy or credibility are questioned, it undermines faith. We want to believe that the people we most respect are truthful with us. When they aren't, it creates lingering, disturbing uncertainty.