Credibility: It's What You Do, Not What You Wear

General Eisenhower is an excellent example of a trusted leader who cared about his troops. Here he is talking to paratroopers in Newbury, England before D-Day Operations. June 5, 1944. (Photo from Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum Homepage)

The fire service, like the military, the academic and business world, puts strong emphasis on credibility. Many fire service members stress the importance of symbols, such as bugles, badges, medals, patches, and lately, letters following a name (EFO, PhD, etc.). Even wearing a T-shirt or sporting a decal on an automobile some believe provides them with “automatic” credibility. Not true. It’s not what you wear, but what you do that gives you credibility. Let me explain.

Badges, medals, patches, and other displays of technical expertise or promoted status are important, but unfortunately these symbols do not necessarily translate into creditability. Titles or holding positions of authority may initially bring credibility, but may erode over time, based on the leader’s actions. Real leader-credibility takes time to build and is taken from personal action.

Credibility, I believe, comes from a leader’s ability to build trust, garner confidence, and inspire those they work with. It provides leaders with real influence, not just position or rank.

How do leaders build credibility? First, you realize that your hard work is only part of the equation. You can work as hard as you want to establish credibility, but it’s the people you work with (followers) who will ultimately decide how much of it you have. And it can change daily, or even by the minute. I’ve read where Lou Holtz, former football coach, uses a very simple, but effective way, to evaluate a leader’s credibility. He asks the following three questions:

1.      Can I trust you? Everyone is watching and listening to you. Do your words match what you do? If they don’t, people will not have confidence in you or trust you. They want to know the “why” behind the decisions you’ve made. They want to know that their leader is motivated for organizational gain, not personal gain.

2.      Are you committed to excellence? Setting, demanding, enforcing, and following high standards, or expectations, will equate to higher credibility. Again, actions are more powerful than words.

3.      Do you care about me? Your credibility is based on your relationship with the people you lead. They will evaluate you both as a leader and a person. They want to know that you care about them. A commitment to people contributes to real credibility.

Your credibility plays a large role in your leader-ability. But it’s a fragile thing; easily damaged by one small miss-judgment. Leaders must work hard, every minute, to maintain and preserve their credibility.

How do you see your credibility as a leader? Better yet, how do the people you lead see your credibility?

Of Related Interest:

Servant Leadership and Power in Position-Led Organizations

Are you a leader or just a Boss?

Listen to William Wallace (Mel Gibson) say: “Men don’t follow titles, they follow courage.”

Ronald Reagan's Leadership

Effective leaders are principled, confident, happy, free of ego, and devoted. Our 40th President, Ronald Reagan, has been described as, “a man who understood instinctively that he did not ‘become’ president, but was given ‘temporary custody’ of an office that ultimately belongs to the people.” He is mentioned often with other notable leaders such as Washington and Lincoln. Yesterday, February 6, 2011, would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday.

Leadership Lessons Learned

There are many great leadership lessons we can learn from President Reagan, which I believe can be described in just two words: servant leader.  He was simply a leader who focused on others first. Servant leaders are different than other leaders in that they are focused on others, not just themselves, and they want to make life better for others, not just themselves.

What’s your motivation to lead? Is it to accomplish something or to be recognized?  Or is it your desire to serve others and to help them grow?

President Reagan in Austin, Texas. 7/26/84. Photo from Reagan Library

Of Related Interest:

Ronald Reagan on Leadership

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership