Credibility as a Key Leadership Trait
In a major study conducted by leadership experts James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, credibility is revealed as a cornerstone of leadership. The research, which covers over 15,000 leaders, 400 case studies and 40 in-depth interviews, shows that leaders can encourage greater initiative, risk taking and productivity by demonstrating trust in employees and resolving conflicts on the basis of principles, not positions.
“The best leaders won’t say ‘do as I say’, but rather they’ll say ‘do as I do’.”
A leader is someone who adds colour and tempo to the company. When you’re in a leadership position, all eyes are watching you. As a result, you hold the power to influence all of these people through your actions. If you’re practicing what you preach, and your ethics are aligned with those you expect from your employees, you are morally empowered to affect positive organisational change. You should never demand behaviour from your colleagues and subordinates that you personally don’t adhere to.
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg gained international recognition for being a shining example of credible leadership in action. For about two years, the teenager challenged her parents to lower the family’s carbon footprint by becoming vegan and giving up flying. In August 2019, Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Plymouth, UK to New York, USA in a 60-feet racing yacht equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines. The carbon neutral trans-Atlantic journey showed that her actions aligned with her words. It is no wonder that Greta Thunberg is a credible symbol for climate change.
Whether you’re leading nations, organisations, social institutions or a family, a leader’s credibility is the number one factor in bringing about transformation. One of the reasons why Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela continue to inspire future generations is that there was congruence in the words they spoke and the way they led.
Picture these situations:
- A habitual latecomer boss tells off their subordinates for being late
- A leader appreciates a subordinate’s work in public and promises them a promotion. The same leader quietly promotes instead, someone who spends a lot of time with them
- A company announces a major cost cutting drive, and strangely the board organises a conference in a five-star hotel to discuss future plans
- A company goes overboard with advertising about caring for its customers. There however, is no response from their corporate office to several letters addressed to the CEO about a pending matter
- A senior manager misuses their power and perquisites, such as using the company car for personal purposes or taking their family out for dinner at the company's expense
These are some examples from my exploratory research about the lack of credibility in management. When there’s a gap between what a leader says or stands for, and the actions they take – the “Saying-Doing” Gap – they are unable to inspire confidence in people.
Learn From Role Models
Each of us has our own story of leadership. Our early process of socialisation in our families or workplaces shapes our own journey of leadership. We observe our role models who have inspired us with their words and actions, and they can help us be better leaders.
My father was great at leading by example. He was a very disciplined man, and demanded discipline from all of his children as well. Growing up, he had a firm rule that we had to study until 10.00pm every night. At that time, we resented his rule greatly and sometimes even secretly dozed off. My father would also stay up working until 10.00pm every night, so we saw that he embodied the principles he demanded from us. We could never turn around and question him or complain that he had double standards. This early socialisation laid the strong foundations for discipline that continue to serve me to date.
At work, I was greatly influenced by one of my bosses, L.B. Bhide, who was the Head of Personnel at the Bank of Baroda in the 70s. His behaviour and responses were always very inspiring: he maintained a high level of personal discipline and integrity, and used his position solely to pursue the company’s interests. He was democratic and took an interest in motivating his juniors to succeed. Credible leaders inspire people through their actions. On the other hand, leaders who lack credibility demotivate people because of the wide gulf between their words, behaviours, and actions.
While conducting leadership programmes, I always ask participants to think of the bosses with whom they would like to work with again, if given an opportunity. Why is this so? Some frequently used words to describe such leaders include:
- was always supportive
- was tolerant of mistakes
- guided and inspired
- possessed high integrity
- was disciplined
- always stood by my side during adversity
- showed respect
- listened carefully
- solved problems
- showed courage to do the right thing
- was always accessible
- appreciated good work
- counselled me when I made mistakes
- was always congruent in beliefs and behaviour
As you can see, the most memorable leaders are those who were positive, raised their employees’ self-esteem, and created conditions where people would feel motivated to contribute their best effort. Leading by example is a powerful way to create a positive spiral. You become the change you want to see, your colleagues and subordinates will follow suit, and eventually, these changes will be institutionalised.
Building credibility is a choice and requires a personal vision for each role that we come to play: be it parent, manager or a teacher. It's hard work to exercise restraint and be accountable, but it's fundamental to developing credibility. There is a problematic mindset that when you are a top executive, you have the right to bend the rules to your advantage.
Reflect on your “Saying-Doing” gap daily. Do your actions match the values and behaviours you want to encourage in the company? What did you say that day, and what have you done about it? Without holding yourself accountable to a high standard of personal credibility, you’ll be making empty promises that you can’t fulfill. Your words remain in present continuous tense. Shift to action mode instead.
Best Practices to Build Credibility
So how do you start becoming more credible? Don’t over-complicate this or become anxious at the thought of it. Whenever you notice a discrepancy in your words and actions, make yourself aware of it and actually change your behaviour. Slowly, it will become a part of your DNA, and it will happen automatically. Like every skill, it will take intentional effort and practice. Train your mind, and just start somewhere. You will see the impact in due time.
Reflection is a powerful way to access and evaluate your behaviour, as it allows you to question your motives. By regularly reflecting and confronting yourself, you will vastly improve your perspective. As you become aware of the discrepancies in your words and behaviours, write down a plan to address the issue. A daily reflection for about 30 to 60 minutes can be a powerful tool to build self awareness and grow as a leader.
As a leader, you’re responsible for achieving results for your company, and you won’t be able to do so without the support of all employees. Building credibility starts with personal discipline. On a day-to-day basis, your subordinates watch you with a variety of lenses to decide whether you are believable, trustworthy, and authentic in your dealings or someone who doesn’t practice what you preach.
In 2008, while on a short assignment with Asian Institute of Management (AIM) in Manila, Philippines, I sought an appointment to meet its then Chairman, Washington CyCip. I was informed by his office that he would meet me on a particular day at 8.00am in his office. Accordingly, I reached his office and I found that the gentleman in his early 80s was waiting to receive me at 8.00am sharp. Later on, I found out that he had returned only at 2.00am that morning from a long flight from New York to Manila. I was amazed at the level of personal discipline in this person who headed large businesses. Such leaders develop the moral authority to lead great organisations with authority and charisma and are able to lead from the front.
I have worked with some leaders who held high positions but fail to align their words with their actions. Such people also disregard personal discipline in managing their time and dealing with people with respect. They conduct themselves with hubris and arrogance. For them, leadership is all about power and compensation. Can such leaders inspire? Obviously, the answer is no. They tend to rule by command and control.
Create the Positive Culture You Want
Often, we try to hide behind the prevailing culture of indiscipline, average performance and lack of assertion.
Never let a negative culture seep into your personal ethics. If your environment is positive, then by all means, go ahead and draw inspiration from it. However, if your work environment is at odds with your values, don’t feel helpless and take a back seat. You have the responsibility to change it. Especially in top leadership roles, you have an increased ability to influence the way things are done.
One principle you should keep in mind is to always be on time and be responsive to people. Only credible leaders can change culture with conviction. They are futuristic and are always keen to align their organisations to emerging challenges. Credible leaders define new visions for the company and help mobilise its people towards achieving ambitious goals.
Listen to Learn and Take Action
The best leaders in the world are those who demonstrate the minimum “Saying-Doing” gap. Of course, nothing is absolute, and there will always be some level of incongruence. Yet as a leader, you should aim to keep that discrepancy to a minimum. The key trait of a credible leader is his approach and attitude in listening to others. Without active listening, you cannot engage with people and their ideas. If you’re issuing instructions from your position of power without listening, you won’t be able to bring about transformation in the company.
For example, a senior leader holds a town hall meeting and asks the staff for suggestions on how to improve their business processes. Staff members share their insights, and some suggestions are appreciated on the spot. However, at the end of the day, the leader doesn’t act on any of these suggestions. If you, as a leader, aren’t taking quick action, you simply won’t be taken seriously the next time around. Many times, corporate offices dole out instructions to their subordinate offices, but their own offices fail to follow these instructions. As a result, no change actually happens.
When the Bank of Baroda undertook major transformation between 2005 and 2008 (including technologically driven business transformation), I organised several town hall meetings. At this time, we sought our employees’ observations and suggestions on ways to improve our products and the business as a whole. The focus was to understand the problems of doing business in a competitive environment and which management policies were hindering them in meeting customer expectations on the ground. We wanted to learn rather than find faults or sermonise.
Many insightful suggestions were shared, and we implemented them without delay. As a result, employees were substantially more engaged and we could achieve remarkable business results.
Make sure that you’re listening to your teams, giving them space to air out their challenges, and also taking action to build up your own credibility.
The world today is changing very rapidly. We are living in a V (volatile), U (uncertain), C (complex), A (ambiguous) environment. Technology has made data more transparent, and information readily available. You are expected to be fair in your decision making, especially where your employees’ career progression and reward systems are concerned. Today’s workforce expects their leaders to be open, transparent, and fair in their dealings. To be credible, you must have the right HR policies in place to make sure you’re able to meet your employees’ expectations.
Many CEOs tell me that millennials aren’t committed, and that they’re transactional. But if you dig deeper, the reality is that we’re living in a generation that asks “why”. Look at young children today. They don’t hesitate to point out incongruences that they see in their parents. In my time, we never questioned our parents or their authority.
Millennials want to understand ‘why’ before they blindly follow instructions. I feel that millennials are more intelligent, authentic and transparent than they’re given credit for. To tap into their full potential and productivity, however, you need to give them their ‘whys’, which you can do when you lead by example.
Today’s competitive work environment means that people are pressured to perform and deliver results. Millennials in particular are increasingly feeling fatigued and burnt out by these demands. To sustain high performance, you should have a high level of compassion for your people. The workplace of the future needs leaders who are inspiring and empathetic: leaders who understand the world of people, their priorities and their struggles.
Put empathy to practice by making an effort to understand the people who work with you. Initiate conversations with your teams. Build a diverse workforce, be sensitive to gender issues, and always aim to be inclusive.
Once employees are engaged, the sky's the limit: they’ll create miracles if they share your perspective.
As a leader, your job is to inspire them by practicing what you preach and setting a high bar.
Be Authentic as a Rule
Do customers use such words as fake, phony, or unreal to describe your company and its products? Do they complain that the quality of your product or service doesn’t live up to the claims you’re making? Or do your employees complain that their leaders are untrustworthy, casual, unreliable, and fake?
Obviously in both cases, there’s a clear lack of trust that’s reducing your credibility. In order to be credible, you’ll also need to be authentic. Customers and employees want to know that they can trust you to be sincere and authentic with them. They are individualistic, well informed and are globally connected. Your employees and customers won’t be happy with just promises and assurances. They want leaders to be authentic with data, information and their words. To be a credible leader, you’ll need to deliver on authenticity.
As the CEO, my personal experience in practicing authenticity with the board, employees and other stakeholders bore fantastic results for the Bank of Baroda. Where other leaders didn’t give bad news to employees to supposedly bolster their motivation, I took a different approach. In town hall meetings, I chose to share about the decline of business on various parameters, and the increase in customer complaints about delays in decision making and poor service.
Employees across the 3000 branches were unaware about the real problems as they were always told that everything was fine. Initially, they were shocked. Yet genuine sharing brought real involvement of the foot-soldiers in reshaping the bank’s services. They were also a great deal more involved in participating in the bank’s transformation programme to see dramatic business results. At the core of our effort was to put employees in touch with reality. By authentically sharing, we were able to get everyone on board towards a new vision.
Authenticity is the bedrock of building credibility.
A Checklist of Credible Leadership
If you’re looking for ways to build a personal brand of credible leadership, you need to make sure your daily words and actions are in alignment with this principle.
- As a rule, you should:
- never make empty promises
- listen intently and take appropriate action
- always be responsive
- give people credit for their creative contributions
- remain accessible and visible
- set an example in conduct, behaviour, courtesies and conversations
- be aware of your actions and be sensitive to what you say and what you do
- listen to criticism, analyse it, give feedback and take corrective action
- take a stand against unethical conduct
- maintain dignity, integrity, and honesty at all times.
- show zero tolerance for unethical and unacceptable behaviour
- be prepared to sacrifice your position and power to maintain ethics
- create a balance in your private and professional life
- avoid conflicts of interests and always choose an honest path
- reflect on your thoughts, deeds, and actions
This will vastly improve your credibility as an individual and in your leadership role.
Steps to Take in 24 Hours
- Make Time to Reflect
Take 30 to 60 minutes at the end of your day to reflect upon your actions as a leader. Honestly ask yourself whether your words and actions are aligned. If not, take corrective action to make sure you’re improving as a leader.
- Take Baby Steps Towards Your Goal
Based on your daily reflections, you should experiment with new behaviour to reduce the "Saying-Doing" gap. Once you discover your blind spots, the process of change will begin with some degree of practice with determination.
- Deny Instant Gratification
Don’t make promises that you find difficult to implement later on. Listen thoughtfully, work to get data and if necessary, bring about the necessary changes. Learn to say no gracefully instead of agreeing instantly and without any intention to take action.