Credibility Lost

“Where do I go to get my Reputation back?”

~Raymond Donovan

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  Someone who’s old enough to know better says something they know is not true.  It happens all the time.  What do you call it? Exaggerating. Stretching the truth. Resume enhancement. Misremembering. Fibbing. Lying. An error in judgment.

Take your pick. Likely your answer depends on who’s doing the fibbing, and what they’re mis-remembering.

Point taken.

Then they get caught.  What should it cost them?  A shake of the head in disapproval? Some good-natured teasing?  A slap on the wrist?  A note to the file?  A trip to the proverbial woodshed?

How about six months off with no pay?

Oh, that case.

You know that case.  Everybody knows that case.  The biggest TV news anchor in the business – the Managing Editor, meaning that HE got to decide what the news is – gets caught in a little bit of exaggeration about what happened on a helicopter ride a decade ago.  It’s the news guy’s version of the fish that got away.  

If you’re thinking “Served him right” I wouldn’t argue with you.  But six months worth of sitting around the house, contemplating the errors of his ways, really is a steep price to pay.

Suspension served, do you think you’ll see him back in the anchor chair with a cheery, “Good evening, America.  Great to be back with tonight’s news”?

I don’t either.  So, where does he go to get his reputation back?

The Matter of Credibility

Of the many assets a leader has in his possession, time is the scarcest: it’s the one thing a leader can’t buy more of.  There are only sixty minutes in the hour, twenty-four hours in the day, seven days in the week. If you’re in the business of leading, 24/7 pretty much sums up your work life.

Then there’s the matter of credibility: the most precious asset a leader has. If they are lucky enough to even have it in the first place.  Some in positions of leadership don’t.

Its Latin origin is “to believe.” What makes someone believable? Experience, know-how, integrity, and history intertwine to create the phenomena called credibility. In leadership – influence, by another name – credibility is the coin of the realm. Experto credite: trust the one who’s been there. It’s what followers do.

Consider that a leadership principle cast in concrete.

Every follower on the planet understands that. Does every leader? Obviously the news guy didn’t – at least not until his career smashed into the bridge abutment of credibility. No tougher way to learn that lesson.

Worse, having learned that lesson, what can he do with what he now understands perfectly well? Write newsletters for a living?

Got Credibility?

The forces and factors that intertwine to determine credibility are simple to describe, easy to understand. Followers instinctively get who’s got it.  It is conferred on leaders by followers: followers have the voting power.

Credibility functions independently of the organization’s hierarchy. In every outfit can be found individuals with  “street cred.” You won’t find them listed on the organization chart, but everybody knows who they are. Ask around, if you need to.

You probably don’t.

As to why they have it, take a few minutes to understand their history and their MO (modus operandi – methods – if you need to know), the explanation is simple. Are they leaders?

Of course they are. So much for the notion that “leadership is a privilege bestowed by management.”

Credibility is a privilege bestowed on leaders by their followers. If you are one of the lucky ones who have that precious commodity, consider it a privilege.  Put it to good use: make a difference.  It’s what the best leaders do.

And don’t go blowing it up by running into your version of some bridge abutment!

Want Credibility?

It’s also true is that not everyone in a position of management and leadership has credibility. It’s understandable: the absence of a common history is a problem for new people starting out their careers; people new in leadership positions; people new to the organization, even if they’d earned it elsewhere. Credibility doesn’t pack up and shift to anew location.

And, yes, there are the cases where the common history is the problem. Living down one’s past is not easy.

Actions speak louder than words. Everybody knows that; not that it has stopped some leaders from failing to practice what they preach. Over the centuries, leading by example has proven to be a pretty darn effective means of gaining credibility. But it requires time and consistency.

Which is exactly why it works.

Still, words matter.  In this day and age, they matter a lot. Maybe too much. But as to how they matter, there’s a lot of misunderstanding on the matter.

A lot of leaders think words – aka “communication” – is the solution to the challenge of leadership. Confirming that is the fact that followers are guaranteed to tell their leaders they don’t get enough communication and want more.

In five decades of looking at employee survey data, the most predictable of finding s is “we don’t get enough information.” In six decades of being in business organizations, the amount of information coming to employees has increased like nothing else I’ve witnessed. Information Technology has revolutionized the workplace.

“We’re not getting enough communication.” Really?

Here’s an alternative diagnosis of the situation. Much of what’s coming their way isn’t what followers are really looking for. It’s prepackaged in press releases; posted up on powerpoints; presented in the vernacular of a business school professor.

That’s not to say there’s not good stuff in there, but whatever that might be, it goes right in one ear and right out the other of all those good followers in the audience who just aren’t paying attention. Out on location with good clients all over the world, from the back of the room, I see that happen all the time.

Stunningly, most of the time that audience is a room full of leaders!

Credibility, Credibility, Credibility

Back in the 80’s a major brokerage firm ran a very clever ad. Picture a crowded room filled with all sorts of side conversations going on. In one, in hushed tone, is said, “Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton, and E.F Hutton says……”  At that point, everyone in the room strained to eavesdrop on that conversation.

That’s what credibility looks like in real life.

Followers listen intently to those with credibility. As to what they say, those with credibility are guaranteed to speak the truth, and without fail, in plain and simple English.

Don’t take my word for it: go ask that news guy.

Paul Balmert
March 2015

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