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Developing Credibility in Leadership

Dec 5, 2019 | 13m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • Why a leader’s actions really do speak louder than words
  • Why authenticity is key to credible leadership
  • How to unlock your full potential to develop credible leadership


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
  • authentic
  • was disciplined
  • always stood by my side during adversity
  • showed respect
  • mentored
  • 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.

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Dr. Anil Khandelwal

Former Chairman

Bank of Baroda



Leadership Philosophy Taking on a New Leadership Role