Leadership Credibility

Pierre Casse & Eoin Banahan

In the private sector, corporate leaders profess to have their customers’ best interests at heartand to act authentically and with integrity but, as customers, we dismiss such affirmations as mere humbug. CEOs and other senior executives present their visions and strategies, and those responsible for implementation respond with scepticism.

In the public sector, politicians assure people that, if given the opportunity, they will create a better world from which all will benefit and the citizens shrug their shoulders in disbelief. We have heard it all before and experience has taught us that there is a disconnect between what the political leader says and does.

We have reached a stage at which we have lost all trust in those who act as leaders.

For too long now, we have been betrayed by those who claim to be acting in our interest but, in reality, prove only to be acting in self-interest and with contempt for the greater good. The evidence is all around us; the banking sector being one of the most obvious examples and from which we are all suffering. Most people in society today have experienced the feeling of being deceived by those in positions of leadership so that now we no longer trust those who have the power.

The situation has reached crisis point because now we have become so used to being lied to and disappointed that we have come to accept the fact that leaders cannot be trusted. We have become desensitised and have little choice but to revert back to the principle of everybody for themselves. However, this trend does not bode well for the future.

The nature of the link between words and deeds is the foundation upon which credibility is built.


"All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses" (F. Nietzsche)

In this article, we will examine the following three questions:

  • what do we mean by credibility in the leadership context?
  • why is it important?
  • how can leaders cope with the credibility issue?

What is credibility?

Defining the concept of credibility as it relates to leadership today is not so easy. However, as a working definition, we suggest the following: “Credibility is a psychological and social state that exists when people believe in what is being said or done and give credit to people on the basis of the consistency between their words and deeds.” The main characteristic is belief. In other words, we assume that people who are asserting something, making an assessment of a situation or carrying out an action are truthful. People then say: “The leader knows and I believe he is right. This is the route to success and I believe I can trust this leader.” We understand a belief to be a non-verified assumption or a subjective interpretation of what is (or seems to be), but with limited tangible evidence.

Managers trust and credibility

The notion of credibility has at least three key dimensions:

  • the truth The concept of truth is, as we all know, very relative. We therefore have a tendency to perceive something as the truth when there is a close match between our assumptions and ‘so-called’ reality. In other words, when our assumptions have been verified and we have confidence in their validity.
  • the proof A person’s credibility can vary over time. It has to endure the acid test of proof or evidence. Leaders remain credible as long as the experience and the passage of time confirm that their assertions, and related decisions, were/are in line with the requirements of some situations
  • the faith If credibility is based on beliefs, it involves an act of faith: we find people credible because we want to do so. The facts may not support it but, nevertheless, for personal and social reasons, people will say: "I believe in you. As far as I am concerned, you are ‘credible’."

Furthermore, the concept and the definition of credibility have evolved over time and are still perceived differently in different cultures and may also have some biological connections:

  • over time If we compare the notion of credibility throughout history and in line with the evolution of human kind, we can see that it has been perceived and valued differently. There were times when credibility was not an issue at all. The leader – a dictator for instance – was in charge, with full power to impose his will. People were subject to orders with no choice but to comply. In such situations, people had no need to believe. However, the importance of credibility changed dramatically with the introduction and development of social systems, democratic principles and the practice of the free market.
  • in different cultures There are important cultural differences in the understanding of credibility. In some cultures, it is closely connected with the social network (I know you therefore I trust you). In others, it is largely imposed by the religion (I represent the ultimate power ie God, therefore believe in me). It can also be based on a kind of reciprocity or contractual arrangement (you will be credible as long as you deliver on your commitment)
  • the biological connection Some biologists claim that there are connections between our biological make-up and our
    ability to present ourselves as a credible person. However, this debate is ongoing with definitive conclusions as yet to be realised.

Why credibility?

There is little doubt that a lot of people in many organisations do not consider their leaders to be credible any more. They have lost trust in what the leader says and does. But some leaders, openly or otherwise, claim that credibility is not an issue as long as they deliver great results. Others more sensitive to the importance of image agree that it has become a major problem in many organisations. 

The challenge for every leader is that it is difficult to deliver great results without some degree of commitment from those tasked with implementation. Our experience from the field has shown that, where people lose trust in the leader and question their credibility, they tend to disengage and direct their energies and commitment elsewhere. Once this begins to happen, the malaise can spread like a contagion throughout the organisation until the leader in question finds an effective way to curtail the disease or is replaced. Our view, as academics who work closely with business people in our research and consulting activities, is that leaders must be fully aware of the following three critical and unavoidable questions:

  • do I really trust myself? This requires careful self-reflection about those fundamental values that drive the leader’s attitudes and behaviours. If he is to manage his credibility, he must be able to question, from time to time, his own integrity. Sustaining credibility is not possible without some understanding of the impact of power on the leader’s understanding of self
  • do people trust me? The answer to this question is not so easy to ascertain since people often tell the leader what they think he wants to hear rather than what is the reality
  • do I trust my managers? The answer to this question is critical since it will determine in larger part the style of leadership appropriate in a given situation.

 Acquiring credibility

"The more you are willing to accept responsibility for your actions, the more credibility you will have" (Brian Koslow)

There is little doubt that the nature of the link between words and deeds is the foundation upon which credibility is built. Here are three guidelines for leaders concerned about acquiring credibility:

  • do not talk about subjects about which you are uncertain; if you do, do it with the proper reservation. There is no shame in admitting you do not have the answers but have some ideas as to how the answers may be explored and acquired
  • deliver on your promises. It is amazing how often leaders will promise something and fail to deliver, or promise something and deliver something else
  • be accountable. The leader must be prepared to accept responsibility for the impact of his attitudes and behaviours on the organisation.

Enhancing credibility

"Prophecy: The art and practice of selling one’s credibility for future delivery" (Ambrose Bierce)

Credibility requires careful management. It should be something with which the leader is concerned and assesses from time to time. In so doing, leaders can enhance their credibility by:

  • showing how right they have been in the past. Although it is important that the leader can show a history of successes, it is also important to show a history of consistency between words and deeds. If inconsistencies have arisen in the past, the leader must be able to explain and justify discrepancies
  • documenting their statements with ‘facts’. The supporting evidence is crucial
  • not changing opinions or decisions all the time. Since the environment in which we live is constantly changing, it is inevitable that the leader will have to change course from time to time but such departures must be explained and justified when they occur.

Losing credibility

"Credibility is like virginity. Once you lose it you can never get it back" (Unknown)

It is so easy to lose credibility and the reasons for doing so are often obvious and foreseeable. The following three behaviours lead to an unequivocal loss of credibility:

  • lying to people
  • making contradictory statements
  • blaming people for your own mistakes.

Where people lose trust in the leader and question their credibility, they tend to disengage.

Source: The article Credibility by Pierre Casse & Eoin Banahan was published in Training Journal, April 2013.

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