The greatest temptation that managers face today is a desire to appear seven-foot-tall and bulletproof to their followers. In other words, to be perceived as perfect, flawless, impenetrable and invincible seems like the perfect image. Perhaps managers even wonder, “Why would anyone trust and follow me if I’m flawed and vulnerable?”
Consequently, managers and supervisors get caught up in a game of being right, and if not right, act as if they’re right anyway. This is reminiscent of parents who might not know why they’ve just given a command or punishment to their children, but feel comfortable with, “Because I said so” as the ultimate answer to save face. The irony is that followers at work – just like children at home – know that their leaders aren’t seven-foot-tall and bullet proof. The attempts to create the illusion of perfection, just distracts and takes away from whatever credibility was there in the first place.
Credibility is the key ingredient in leadership. The Latin root word is “credo,” which means “I believe” or “I trust.” Credibility, like credit from a bank, is given to those who are trusted. Therefore, credibility is given to leaders whom the followers find believable. If you’re not believable, nor trusted to represent yourself honestly, you will have little credibility with your followers. It may be the biggest paradox in leadership: knowledge is honored, while pretending to have knowledge is disdained.
How to Build Credibility without Being Bullet ProofThe answer to the paradox is found in being real, or authentic. Leaders have several key opportunities to demonstrate their genuineness.
1) Honor others, let others honor you. Shining a light on the accomplishments of others has many benefits. It provides reinforcement of the behaviors you want to see in the organization. It boosts morale by sending a message of success for all to see. It also teaches the habit of honoring to everyone. The tricky thing about honoring is that you can’t successfully do it to yourself! Others must do the honoring, or it isn’t honoring…it’s boasting and self-promotion. If leaders spend time trying to honor themselves, they create a climate where it’s accepted. Soon others will duplicate the practice of slapping their own backs. When leaders sincerely edify those around them, they themselves are elevated in the minds of the followers as trustworthy and humble.
2) Become a learner, not a judge. Asking good questions may be the single most significant skill for a leader to learn. Somewhere in the development of most leaders a strange thing happens at almost exactly the same moment as the arrival of a promotion. A mental switch is thrown and what was an intelligent question-asking human being becomes an answer-telling machine; all-knowing, all-seeing and certain-of-everything. It’s as if any hesitation or inquiry indicates incompetence, and that’s unthinkable for the one in charge. Every situation in the workplace presents a leader with two options: 1) Jump to a conclusion and judgment, or 2) Ask a question to learn more. Credible leaders are learners who ask, listen and then decide.
3) State conclusions tentatively. After gathering information and processing that data, it would seem natural for a leader to just blurt out the answer and give the command. “I’ve made up my mind, so go do it” would seem to make sense. However, leaders who trust the opinions of followers will use a different delivery strategy. Stating your conclusions tentatively means leaving a door open for other unknown facts or opinions to find the light of day. If a leader overstates a position it leaves no room for other positions except through confrontation with the boss! What would followers dare say in response to, “Well, this is absolutely the way to go on this and there is certainly no other way.” However, if you said, “The data I’ve seen has me leaning toward this option unless there’s something I’m not aware of,” your credibility is enhanced by your openness to feedback from others.
4) Admit not knowing the answers. Since no one has all the answers or all the information, admitting that you don’t know an answer does not make you incompetent. Making up incorrect answers just to appear smart will most often backfire. Wise leaders are eager to seek out information through their many resources. Being resourceful is the sign of a competent leader. Knowing how and where to get answers is more valuable and beneficial for the organization. “I don’t have that answer yet, but I know where to go looking for it” is an important phrase for leaders to demonstrate and followers to learn.
5) Apologize for mistakes or poor judgments. Have you ever noticed the look of relief – and maybe surprise – on a child’s face when an adult apologizes for a mistake or showing poor judgment? Followers may have the same surprise at first. But once they learn that you are a leader who takes personal responsibility for your decisions – especially if that includes an apology – your credibility soars. It takes strength and courage to admit mistakes to peers and followers, but the end result is stronger relationships.
Leaders shed their Superman cape when they exhibit authenticity in each of these five key areas. The illusion of perfection fades away, and in its place is the image of a leader who is aware of the true human condition – flawed and vulnerable, but ready to learn lessons and move on. If you were the follower, which kind of leader would you choose to follow?