The Real Leadership Essential of Credibility

By Dr.Peter Cheng

This article is the fifth of a 9-part series that discusses the Who-ness and What-ness of A Real Leader who Shapes Culture and Drives Performance.


Leaders are meant to inspire and influence others to achieve extraordinary outcomes, helping them and their organisations to grow beyond expectations. And in the context of an educated and cosmopolitan workforce, to influence others requires more than having great oratory or persuasion skills — leaders have to be credible too.

Credibility denotes the quality of being convincing and believable. It's one of the primary qualities that great leaders posses. When you are credible, you are true to yourself and others, you say what you mean and mean everything you say.

Credible leaders establish psychological contracts with their communities and teams, bound by shared values. These contracts are more concrete than words of any legal and binding document. They build trust, commitment, and loyalty to the leader in good and challenging times. Leaders who lack credibility break psychological contracts with their people and will not have loyal followers, let alone inspired ones.

Here are seven things that Real Leaders do to build and sustain credibility with their teams and communities:

1. Upholding Values When the Values Are Challenged

Real Leaders lead from the essence of who they are: values that they deeply embrace. These values are the guiding principles that often influence how they behave and interact with the people at work and the society at large. Or do they?

Often times, workplace situations test our commitment to upholding our values. If you do not strongly embrace your values, you could easily compromise them due to situational factors or by letting acts that violate your values get past you.

There was once a young CFO who asked his vendor to inflate the value of a quotation by 20% so that he could claim a higher amount of grant from a government funding authority. The vendor (known for his credibility in the market) refused to compromise his value of integrity even when faced with the possibility of losing the business deal with the CFO. He firmly warned the CFO of the consequences of fraudulent actions.

The deal was called off by the CFO. But two weeks later, the CFO — having realised how foolish he was in attempting to beat the system — awarded the deal to the vendor who stood his ground for integrity. Had the vendor given in to the demand of the CFO, both parties would have faced severe consequences of fraud. What the vendor did was a classic example of how a leader should uphold his values when a challenging circumstance arises to threaten one’s values.

2. Demonstrate Authenticity

Being authentic simply means truthfulness with no masking or pretence. You can do this by unmasking your acts and words, to act and speak genuinely with others. It is important to note that while having a clear set of values does positively impact a leader’s authenticity, some leaders still lack authenticity by masking their feelings and opinions for fear of offending or hurting others, or appearing vulnerable. This could be due to personality and/or cultural backgrounds.

Especially in high-context cultures, people tend to agree with others (to be polite) but inwardly oppose or disagree with them. Real Leaders rise above personality and cultural influences to speak up and act according to their heart-felt values.

3. Role-Model Values

Having values is only the start of living a principled life that reflects one’s true essence. Building credibility requires you to live out the values that you believe in with your people. Anything short of exemplifying these values will certainly tarnish your credibility.

4. Demonstrate Conduct That Earns Others’ Trust

Conduct yourself in a respectable manner. I have encountered leaders whose conduct is totally inept with their position. When this happens, the leaders’ credibility will be questioned. Personal indiscretions have been the downfall of many extremely competent leaders. These leaders’ conduct did not live up to the mark of a respectable leader. As a result, their people distrusted them and did what was only necessary for their jobs.

On the other hand, we find a fair share of organisational leaders who have been commended by their teams for their exemplary conduct. In these cases, their people were inspired and engaged to give their of their best efforts, leading to greater team outcomes.

5. Practise What is Expected of Others

To be believable and convincing, you need to live out what you expect others to do. The sheer act of doing speaks volumes of what you believe in and stand for. I once had a Sales Director who attended my leadership development workshop ask me, “Do I need to go out to do sales as I expect my people to do? If yes, how can I afford to, since I have other leadership roles to fulfil? Will I be seen as not being credible if I do not do sales as I expect of others?”

These are great questions to clear the myth that leaders must do exactly what they expect others to do. In response to the question, I asked, “Is there something you do that directly or indirectly supports the sales people?” The answer was, “Yes, I strategise our sales plan, incentive scheme, meet key clients over meals, help to design the sales rebates scheme for our dealers, etc.”

While leaders expect others to do those functional aspects of things like sales, they do not necessarily have to do the same thing as they expect of others in the functional areas, but they do need to provide some form of support to the work they expect others to do. However, if leaders expect certain behaviours from others at work, such as being punctual, then leaders ought to be punctual themselves or stand to lose their credibility.

6. Invest Time to Rebuild Trust

The baseline to leadership is to have genuine relationships with others. However, even the best of relationships may sometimes be derailed and have trust broken by incidents, misunderstandings, conflicts, and tension that arises from diverse personalities and opinions.

Invest time to identify and mend hurting relationships. Make a concerted effort to put things right. That means, that as a Real Leader, you often have to forego your pride and reach out to others first. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, once said that a “Level 5” leader “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

Perhaps you are experiencing some hurt relationships at the workplace or even at home. Wherever it may be, take the first step to invest time to rebuild any broken trust. You’ll be glad you did, because that will rebuild your credibility.

7. Keep Your Promises

Simply put: let your 'yes' be 'yes', and your 'no' be 'no'. A leader’s ability to inspire and influence is deeply determined by his ability to keep to his or her promises and commitments. Try breaking promises with others, and you’ll find your credibility nose-diving. This appears to be rather common sensical, but is often missed out by leaders lacking credibility.

As a leader, you may be faced with the pressure to make promises to the your team members under different circumstances. You need to keep close to your core of who you are and the shared values you uphold as a leader with your people. Don’t let pressure or obligations shape your promises to others. Rather, let your personal and shared value shape your promises.

Be sure to say “NO” when things violate those shared values, and be realistic with your commitments so that you will be able to fully realise them. In this way, your credibility will be a constant and sustained quality that others will look up to.

In conclusion, Real Leaders are credible leaders. The essential of credibility cannot be ignored for leaders who want to lead, engage, inspire and influence others to achieve the extraordinary with their people and for their organisations.

You can  find out more about PACE's Real Leadership solutions here.

In the next article of the series, I’ll discuss the Real Leadership essential of Compassion. You can read the previous articles of the 9-part series here:

  1. What Does It Take to Be a Real Leader?
  2. What Does it Mean to Be Competent?
  3. The Formation of Character
  4. Conviction with Courage

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