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Establishing Credibility

The purpose of leadership communications, as pointed out in Chapter 1, is to build (or establish) trust between leader and follower. This trust is essential to a leader's credibility. Lyndon Johnson lost the trust of the American people over his conduct of the Vietnam War. His accomplishments in civil rights legislation and the war on poverty were overshadowed by his refusal to be straight with the American people, or even with himself, over the issues involved in Vietnam. The accounting firm Arthur Andersen suffered an enormous lack of credibility in the wake of its faulty auditing. Its lack of accountability (no pun intended) destroyed the company and cast a harsh light on other major accounting firms that were beset with their own scandals. The financial markets, too, reverberated as investors wondered if they could trust the financial statements of any company.

Credibility is a leader's currency. With it he or she is solvent; without it he or she is bankrupt. Communications reinforces a leader's credibility. How can a leader establish credibility (see Figure 3-1)?[1]

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Figure 3-1: Establishing Credibility
  • Speak the truth. Tell people what the facts are. Be straight with people. The "open book" management style (where employees are free to look at management finances and policies) works because it shares information across all levels. The approach fosters a greater sense of responsibility. Zingerman's, a thriving community of food-related businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan, employs the open book style with great success. As a result, Zingerman's owners have created a sense of shared ownership as well as an esprit de corps for the entire enterprise.

  • Don't hide bad news. We live in an era of transparency: People want to see inside an organization. With the multiplicity of information channels that are available, bad news always becomes known, so it behooves management to be candid right from the start. Winston Churchill did not shirk from telling the British people how dire the odds were in May 1940 as Britain stood alone against the Nazi war machine. And there was no wide-scale panic. People are capable of accepting the truth if you are honest with them.

  • Never overpromise. Do not make promises that you cannot keep. Politicians seem never to learn this lesson. Campaign promises are not promises at all; they are platitudes. As a result, politicians as a group have little credibility. That said, there are individual political leaders in both major parties—Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman among the Democrats and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan among the Republicans, for example—who have a great deal of credibility. Why? Because they were seen to deliver on their promises.

  • Do what you say you will do. Tell people what you are going to do, and then do it. Tom Brady became the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots when the starter was injured. To everyone's surprise, he led his team to a series of victories that landed the team in the Super Bowl. Brady, a second-year man, never gave the rah-rah speech; he let his actions on and off the field do the talking for him. He was focused and clear in his signal calling in the huddle and supportive on the sidelines. Off the field, he was disciplined in his workouts and in his comments to the media. He simply said he would do his best, and he did.

[1]James Lardner, "Why Should Anyone Believe You?" Business 2.0, March 2002, pp. 42-48. This article provides background material on the issue of credibility.

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