The Principle of Credibility

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 10, 2009

"Leadership may have to come in a different package. It's got to be credible...Overall, it's about credibility, walking the talk."
Anne Mulcahy

Over the years I have read a lot of books on leadership. And I continue to read them. I guess my reading habits grow out of my insatiable quest to keep growing as a leader. Actually, I don't think I ever met a leader who claims to have arrived at leadership perfection. There always seems to be something else we can do to improve. 

That quest caused me to pick up Stephen M. R. Covey's book, The Speed of Trust: The One thing that Changes Everything. (2006) His book begins with these words by Naill Fitzgerald, "You can have all the facts and figures, all the supporting evidence, all the endorsement that you want, but if you don't command trust, you won't get anywhere." 

Whether trust is private or public, Mahatma Gandhi said, "The moment there is suspicion about a person's motives, everything he does becomes tainted." And at the heart of leadership trust is the principle of credibility. Without credibility, no one will trust us. 

According to Covey, there are four cores of credibility which we will frame as four questions: 

Am I a person of integrity? Do I walk the talk or do I say one thing and practice another? Years ago I heard a mother promise here children a trip to New York City if they behaved well over the summer months. The end of summer slipped by and even though they behaved well, she never took them to NYC. Later, she said, "Oh, I never intended to take them to NYC. I just wanted to give them something to look forward to." I can only imagine how her children trusted her after that. 

Do I have good intent? What are the motives behind my leadership initiatives? Covey says, "When we suspect a hidden agenda from someone or we don't believe they are acting in our best interests, we are suspicious of everything they do." How sad that even good intentions are then soiled by how we are perceived. 

Are your credentials excellent? In other words, do you indeed have the expertise, knowledge, skill and capacity in the area in which you are called to lead? How is it possible to trust someone whose credibility is hampered by incompetence? We may be a person of integrity and our motives may be good but that doesn't make us better at leadership. Although my character is important, my golf game also needs skill. 

Do I have a good track record? If the best predictor of future performance is past performance, do the results of my past leadership engender confidence that my decisions today will produce good things tomorrow? We need more than potential for as Dr. Phil says, "Potential merely means we ain't done it yet." As Winston Churchill said, "It's no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary." 

Credibility really does inform our level of trust in each other and those around us. If we do not see people as credible, how can we ever trust them? Perhaps that is part of the reason our politicians have such a hard time persuading us. 

Howard Schultz has observed, "In the 1960's, if you introduced a new product in America, 90% of the people who viewed it for the first time believed the corporate promise. Then 40 years later if you performed the same exercise, less than 10% of the public believed it was true. The fracturing of trust is based on the fact that the consumer has been let down." 

Unfortunately, it takes a long time to build our credibility but we can destroy it in an instant. As the saying goes, "Trust is like a vase - once it is broken, though you can fix it, the vase will never be the same again." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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