While there is nothing inherently
wrong in aCEO's command to "Just believe me," there maybe
something horribly wrong with the CEO -forexample, a lack of honesty,
credibility or evencompetence. These authors, noted experts whohave
written several books on leadership, offer aprescription for restoring
damaged leaders tohealth-and for turning cynics into believers.
By James M. Kouzes and Barry PosnerJames
"It was the best of times,
it was the worstof times, it was the age of wisdom, it wasthe age
of foolishness, it was the epoch ofbelief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it wasthe season of Light, it was the season ofDarkness, it was
the spring of hope, it wasthe winter of despair
Dickens,A Tale of Two Cities.
Charles Dickens wrote these words over 100 yearsago,
but they could easily be parts of today's chorusof confusion. While
the only constant that we canhold onto these days is that "things
will change,"the platform on which we are building the future
isbeing undermined. We see the evidence in thealmost-daily newspaper
headlines and mediareminders of corporate scandals and excesses.
But subtler forces tell the real story. Just cast
youreyes on the growing popularity of Dilbert. From asingle cartoon
strip appearing in one publication in1989, it has expanded into
more than 2,000 dailynewspapers in 65 countries. It has been the
sourceof 22 books (with over 10 million copies in print),numerous
T-shirts, hats-and is coming out soon(possibly) with its own network
What explains the Dilbert phenomenon? Whileappealing on a number
of dimensions, Dilbert isnothing if not your quintessential cynic
when itcomes to today's workplace and management. Couldit be that
the cynics are winning? This article willoffer suggestions for how
leaders can counter thegrowing tide of cynicism and define and exhibit
apositive, credible leadership style.
Cynicism and the culture of disillusionment anddistrust
Cynicism is the tendency to be close-minded anddisillusioned. It
differs from skepticism, which isalso a tendency to disbelieve;
however, skeptics arewilling to be convinced if they are presented
withpersuasive information. Cynics are much lessinclined to be influenced.
They believe that humanconduct is motivated solely by self-interest,
and theyhave a sneering disbelief in the integrity of others.They
adopt unrealistically high expectations ofthemselves and/or other
people, and then generalizethese into expectations about society,
institutions,authorities and the future. They then experiencedisappointment
in everyone's ability to meet theseexpectations, which results in
their feeling of frustration and defeat. The cycle continues withdisillusionment
or the sense of being let down, inturn resulting in a sense of feeling
deceived, betrayedor even manipulated by others. The logicalconclusion
is a character such as Dilbert, portrayedas either helplessly naïve
or being constantly takenin as a sucker.One recent survey indicated
that 23 percent ofworkers would fire their managers if they could.Other
studies show that those who are cynical aboutother people are only
half as likely as their peers toreport that they trust their management
and theirco-workers. More than two-thirds of cynics do notexpress
confidence in management's integrity, nordo they feel much loyalty
or commitment to theirorganization. What does this mean for today'sbusiness
Leadership is a relationship
How do you know that someone is a leader? Thesimplest response
is that "the person has followers."Within this simple
observation lies a powerfulantidote to Dilbert and cynicism. Leaders
are definedby their followers. Leadership is a relationshipbetween
those who aspire to lead and those whochoose to follow, and any
discussion of leadershipmust attend to the dynamics of this relationship.Strategies,
tactics, skills and practices are hollow andempty unless we understand
the fundamental humanaspirations that connect leaders and theirconstituents.
What do constituents expect from leaders? Whydo people believe in
some leaders but not in others?Why do some people choose to follow
one leaderwhile others reject that leader? What actions sustainthe
relationship and what actions destroy it?
To better understand the leader-constituentrelationship, we must
look at it with fresh eyes. Wemust see how leaders and their constituents
areconnected and how those connections might beimproved.
What do people expect from their leaders?
Consider this question for a moment: "What arethe personal
values, traits or characteristics you feelare most crucial in a
person you would willingly follow(that is, take her advice, follow
his guidelines, signup for her team, attend to his directions, etc.)?"
Thekey idea here is "willingly" follow-because you wantto,
not because you have to.
We have found that the responses to this questionhave been surprisingly
consistent over the past 20years. They've also been consistent across
industries,disciplines, generations and continents. Time andagain,
people send a clear message about the qualitiesleaders must demonstrate
if they want others tovoluntarily enlist in a common cause and to
freelycommit to action.
What are these crucial attributes? According toour research, the
majority of us look for and admireleaders who are honest, forward-looking,
inspiringand competent. Let's examine each of these.
Honesty. In virtually every survey we conducted,honesty
was selected more often than any otherleadership characteristic.
Honesty is absolutelyessential to leadership. If people are going
to followsomeone willingly, whether it is into battle or intothe
boardroom, they first want to assure themselvesthat the person
is worthy of their trust. They want to know that the would-be
leader is truthful, ethicaland principled.
Forward-looking. We expect our leaders to have asense of
direction and a concern for the future ofthe organization. Leaders
must know where theyare going. They must have a destination in
mindwhen asking us to join them on a journey into theunknown.
Constituents ask that a leader have a well-defined orientation
toward the future. We want toknow what the organization will look
like, feel likeand be like when it arrives at its goal in six
monthsor six years.
Inspiring. We admire and respect leaders whoare dynamic,
uplifting, enthusiastic, positive andoptimistic. We expect them
to be inspiring. Yet it isnot enough for leaders to have dreams
of the future.They must be able to communicate those dreams inways
that encourage us to sign on for the durationand to work hard
for the goal.
Competent. The fourth most-admired leadershipattribute
is competence. If we are to enlist inanother's cause, we must
see the person as capableand effective. The universal expectation
is that theperson be able to get things done for the businessunit.
In this sense, having a winning track record isthe surest way
to be considered competent. The type of competence that constituents
lookfor, however, seems to vary with the leader's role.For example,
leaders who are officers of the companyare expected to demonstrate
abilities in strategicplanning and policymaking. If a new technologychallenges
the organization, someone else whoknows more about that technology
may be perceivedto be a more appropriate leader. A leader on theline
or at the point of customer contact will typicallyhave to be more
technically competent thansomeone who is more removed. Yet it
is notnecessary that the leader have the same level oftechnical
competence as constituents. Much moresignificant is that the leader
takes the time to learnthe business, to know the current operation
beforemaking changes and decisions that affect everyonein the
Credibility: The foundation of leadership
The characteristics of being honest, inspiring andcompetent comprise
what communications researchers refer to as "source credibility."
Inassessing the believability of sources of information-whether
that source is the president of the company,the president of the
country,a salesperson or a TVnewscaster-there aretypically three
criteria:trustworthiness, expertiseand dynamism. Those whorate highly
on thesedimensions are consideredto be credible, believablesources.These
three dimensions of source credibility arestrikingly similar to
three of the four most frequentlyselected items in our survey: honesty,
competenceand inspiration. What we found quite unexpectedlyin our
initial research-and have had reaffirmed eversince-is that, above
all else, people want leaders whoare credible.Imagine that you are
trying to get a mortgage tobuild the house of your dreams. You sit
down acrossthe desk from the loan officer at your local financialservices
company. After you've completed all thepaperwork, the first thing
that the loan officer is likelyto do is check your credit. Credit
and credibilityshare the same root origin: credo, meaning "I
trust orbelieve." A loan officer checking your credit isliterally
checking trust and belief, searching to knowwhether you can make
good on your word. Theofficer wants to know whether to believe you
whenyou say that you will pay the loan back on time andwith interest.In
many ways, constituents act like loan officers.When a leader makes
promises (that is, signs apromissory note) about what he or she
will do toguide the organization on a journey to an upliftingnew
future, people instinctively do a credit check.They ask themselves,
"The last time this personmade such a promise, was he being
honest about it?" "Did she tell the truth, or was that
just somecampaign pledge to get us to sign on?" "Can I
trustthis person?"People also ask themselves, "Does he
have theenthusiasm to keep people excited along the difficultroad
to the future?" "Does she inspire others tomake the sacrifices
necessary to make it to the end?"And they wonder, "Does
she have the competenceto get us from where we are now to where
we'd liketo be?" "Does he have a track record ofaccomplishment
that would give us confidence inhis abilities?"If the answer
to these essential questions is "yes,"then people are
likely to willingly lend their time,talent and toil. If the answer
is "no," people are notlikely to voluntarily sign up.
When leaders ask othersto follow their new strategic directions
and visionsof exciting possibilities for a better tomorrow, peoplefirst
decide, most often intuitively, whether thoseleaders are to be believed.
Beating the cynics
Cynics can be like a cold virus. We now offer ourown prescription
for eliminating that virus, forbecoming a credible leader.
Rx1: Character counts
Enhancing your credibility begins with a lookinside. Who are you?
What do you believe in? Whatdo you stand for? To be credible as
a leader youmust first clarify your own values, the standards
bywhich you choose to live your life. Your values areevident in
how you feel, what you say, what youthink, how you make choices
and how you act. Untilwe know ourselves-who we are, what we are
tryingto accomplish and why-we can't expect to besuccessful.Who
we are shouts volumes about whether or notwe're the type of individual
that others would wantto follow. Even the U.S. Army's protocol
for developing leadership begins with "Be" (before"Know"
or "Do"). It was "because I [Dan Kaplan]knew myself
and what I was willing to do or not,"that Kaplan, president
of Hertz Equipment RentalCorporation, could be so clear and confident
thathe knew what was required and why he was willingto do whatever
was necessary to be successful. Inturn, his clarity made it possible
for others to knowjust what was required of them as well.What
we continue to find is that if people don'tbelieve in the messenger,
they won't believe themessage.
We asked people to define "credibility" inbehavioral
terms-to tell us the evidence they woulduse to judge whether or
not a leader was believable.The most frequent response was, "They
do what theysay they will do." Similarly, people responded,
"Theypractice what they preach." "They walk the
talk.""Their actions are consistent with their words."
This simple definition leads to an equally simpleprescription
for strengthening credibility:DWYSYWD-Do What You Say You
Will Do.Credibility is established when there is a consistencybetween
words and deeds. People listen to thewords and look at the deeds.
Then they measurethe congruence. A judgment of "credible"
is handeddown when the two are consonant, or as LachlanMcLean,
plant supervisor for the Australian PaperManufacturers, put it,
"You can only lead peoplewhere you yourself are willing to
go." Frank Rucktold us that when he took over one of Chicago
Title& Trust's subsidiaries, he couldn't change anyoneelse's
behaviour. All he could do, he said, was to"begin by becoming
a role model for the managementand organizational values we were
Rx3: Listen deeply
There is a telling scene in a video that portraysPat Carrigan,
who, at the time, was a General Motors plant manager. This scene
reveals the essence ofhow we earn credibility and how we lose
it. A groupof UAW members are sitting around talking aboutCarrigan's
leadership. A veteran of the plantobserves that if the plant manager
who had precededCarrigan at the facility were to enter the room,
thatmanager wouldn't know him. Carrigan, he says, isthe first
plant manager ever to walk around and shakeeverybody's hand. Later
in the tape, the UAW localpresident, says, "She [Carrigan]
ain't got a phonybone in her body."
We have viewed this video with thousands ofpeople. In recalling
the scene, one participant said,"She had to get awfully close
to them for them toknow her bones!" Exactly. It was Carrigan's
physicalpresence that earned her the respect and trust ofthe workers.
It was her visibility and the manyconversations she had with others
that enabled herto overcome years of cynicism and distrust.
As Carrigan demonstrates, and as studies haveshown, great listening
skills are one of the commoncharacteristics of credible leaders.
Credibility isearned by leaning forward to listen to others. Bysharing
personal experiences, exchanging stories andjoining in dialogue,
leaders become people and notjust positions. In this manner, they
alsocommunicate their interest in and respect for otherpeople.
To be a leader, you must develop a deepunderstanding of the collective
values and desiresof your constituents. Leaders who are clearly
onlyinterested in their own agendas, their own advancement and
their own well-being will not befollowed willingly. Reach out
and attend to others.Be present with them; listen to them. Go
out andtalk to your constituents and find out what theyvalue.
Rx4: Build Community
"Shared values are theglue," explained Shelly Brown,then-human
resources vice-president at AspectTelecommunications, "thathold
this company together."Of course, she could havebeen describing
the glue that holds all successfulorganizations together. Credible
leaders build astrong sense of community. To take people to placesthey
have never been before, leaders must be on thesame path as constituents.
And to get people toenlist in going to places they have never
been beforerequires that the aims and aspirations of leaders andconstituents
be congruent. While credible leadershonour the diversity of their
many constituencies,they find a common ground of agreement on
whicheveryone can stand. They bring people together andunite them
into a common cause. They know thatshared values make a difference
and give everyonea common language for collaboration.
When we called to schedule an interview withGayle Hamilton when
she was division manager ofthe Coast Division for the Pacific
Gas and ElectricCompany, we got our first clue that she means
itwhen she says, "I have a strong willingness to be apart
of what is going on, rather than apart from. Idon't think people
enjoy working for long stretchesfor someone who won't be part
of what's happening."We could hear trains in the background.
Hamiltonexplained that after the downtown Santa Cruz,California,
office building had been severely damagedin the Loma Prieta earthquake,
the company gaveher a choice. She could move north to a morecorporate
setting or remain near her crew, taking upquarters in a trailer
next to the railroad tracks thatran through Santa Cruz. Hamilton
chose the trailer and the noise rather than lose the connection
withher constituents and this community.
Rx5: Develop Capacity
Over and over and over again we heard similarexamples of how people
were made to feel moreworthy as a result of their interactions
with leadersthey admired and respected, people whose directionthey
would willingly follow. So Irwin Federman,venture capitalist and
former CEO, was ontosomething when he said, "You don't love
someonebecause of who they are; you love them because ofthe way
they make you feel."
"This axiom," Federman points out, "appliesequally
in a company setting. It may seeminappropriate to use words such
as love and affectionin relation to business. Conventional wisdom
has itthat management is not a popularity contest. . . .Icontend,
however, that all things being equal, wewill work harder and more
effectively for people welike. And we will like them in direct
proportion tohow they make us feel."
People cannot contribute to the aims andaspirations of an organization
if they do not knowwhat to do, and they cannot contribute if they
donot know how to do it. Strategic initiatives to deliverSix Sigma
quality or world-class service can actuallymake people feel weak
and incompetent if they donot have the skills and abilities to
perform. It isessential for leaders to continuously develop thecapacity
of their members to keep theircommitments.
Credible leaders are not afraid to liberate the leaderin everyone.
They liberate others by giving themthe latitude to make choices,
by constantly keepingpeople informed about what is going on, and
bycreating a climate that encourages risk-taking,experimenting,
and learning from mistakes. Out ofthis ethic of continuous learning
and improvementcomes increased self-confidence and personalresponsibility.
For, if everyone is a leader, everyoneis responsible for guiding
the organization toward its future.
Rx6: Learn continuously
Credible leaders are great learners; they enable andstrengthen
their constituents' resolve by focusing onwhat can be learned
from every adventure. AsThomas Edison remarked, "I failed
my way tosuccess." Leaders regard each project from this
samevantage point: "What can we learn?" They seelearning
as a positive process of adding, evolvingand enlarging, rather
than one of diminishing,eliminating and destroying-the synonyms
too oftenassociated with change. A learning attitude isessential
in these troubling times of transition. Inthese confusing times,
people need more energy andenthusiasm, more inspiration and optimism
fromtheir leaders than in times of stability and growth.
In times of challenge and difficulty, leaders arealso available
as a shoulder to lean on, as a supportand as a friend. They draw
on their own knowledgeand experience to offer advice and counsel.
Theyare there to tell the team that they can succeed, thatthey
can do it, that they have the will and the way tomake it to the
top. Not as a Pollyanna, but as acheerleader. And if necessary,
credible leadersreassess the situation and find new ways to reachthe
goals or reset their original targets.
Credible leaders are compassionate. Theyunderstand how their constituents
have suffered andknow that they must suffer along with them.Cynicism
is only reinforced when leaders appearexempt from paying the price
for change. Only thosewho have felt the pain of loss and yearning
forfulfillment can truly inspire. Situations arise thatcontinuously
test a leader's beliefs. During thosetimes, credible leaders let
shared values be theirguide. This is the only way they can maintain
therespect and trust of their constituents. Theircourage is an
inspiration to others to make sacrifices.
Keeping hope alive
A credibility check is past-oriented. It has to dowith reputation.
Reputation is human collateral, the security we pledge against the
performance of ourobligations as leaders, friends, colleagues andconstituents.
Reputation is what supports the naturalhuman instinct to want to
trust. Reputation is to becherished and cared for. A damaged reputationlowers
people's estimation of a leader's worth andlowers their motivation
Credibility, like reputation, is something that isearned over time.
It does not come automaticallywith the job or the title. It begins
early in our livesand careers. People tend to initially assume thatsomeone
who has risen to a certain status in life,acquired degrees or achieved
significant goals isdeserving of their confidence. But complete
trustis granted (or not) only after people have had thechance to
get to know more about the person. Thecredibility foundation is
built brick by brick, stoneby stone. And as each new fragment is
secured, thesupport on which we can erect the hopes and dreamsof
the future is gradually built.
We know that without a solid foundation ofpersonal credibility,
leaders can have no hope ofenlisting others in a common vision.
We recognizethat the taller and more expansive a leader's dream,the
deeper the foundation must be. The less stablethe ground underneath,
the more solid thefoundation must be. Especially in uncertain times,leadership
credibility is essential to generatingconfidence among constituents.
Without thatcredibility nothing can be built-at least nothing thatcan
survive the test of time.
But does building the foundation warrant theeffort? Don't we hear
almost daily about business,political, labour and religious leaders
who havebecome successful, yet who lack credibility? Besides,isn't
business about getting results, and if you lackcredibility but get
good results, then so what? Whatdifference does it make anyway?
It matters a great deal. Credibility has asignificantly positive
outcome on individual andorganizational performance. Rebuilding
lost leadership credibility will require daily attention.Leaders
will have to nurture their relationships withconstituents. They
will have to show people thatthey care, every day. They will have
to take thetime to act consciously and consistently. Theiractions
must speak louder than their words.Leadership, after all, is only
in the eyes of thebeholder.
* M. Kouzes is an executive fellow at theCenter for
Innovation and Entrepreneurship,Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara
University,and Chairman Emeritus of The Tom PetersCompany. Barry Posner
is the Dean and Professorof Leadership, Leavey School of Business,
SantaClara University. They are the authors of severalbooks on leadership,
most recently, ChristianReflections on the Leadership Challenge.