A prescription for leading in cynical times (James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner*)

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…" Charles 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 television program.
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 leaders?

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 organization.

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 espousing asimportant."
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 to follow.
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.