The Credible Leader

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“The present moment, if you think about it, is the only time there is.

No matter what time it is, it is always now.”

Marianne Williamson (2020). ‘The Time That Matters Most’

In 1961, President Kennedy established an organization for citizens of the United States to volunteer a few years of service in the developing world. It is known as Peace Corps. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call. As disparate as these events are, they have few things in common. They all involved real leadership. They highlight how important passion and drive is to success in any endeavor and they highlight the fact that the leaders concerned, whilst having regard to the impact these events will have in the future, are responding to needs in the here and now, the present moment. The ‘Book of Proverbs’ really captures the importance of having an eye to the future, whilst being anchored in the present. Great leaders do this daily.

Let your eyes look straight ahead and your gaze be focused forward.

Survey the path for your feet, and all your ways will be sure. (Proverbs 4: 25-26)

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2001). New American Bible.

This really speaks to an important issue. Too often leaders can be so vision-oriented, so future-focused, they lose sight of the reality of the moment. They overlook the little issues, thinking that they are insignificant or irrelevant to the big picture. The leader has failed to realize that by being absent from these issues when they are small, allows the issue to morph into something much larger and potentially more expensive to deal with. In the science of ‘Chaos and Complexity’ there is an occurrence known as the ‘Butterfly Effect’.

“The Butterfly Effect—the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.”

Gleick, James. (1987). Chaos: Making a New Science (eBook). New York, NY: Open Road Integrated Media. (Prologue p.7 of 7).

To adapt this to organizations, the employee making noise this month in a small office on the ground floor, may well be making noise next month that is heard at other sites and possibly by other companies. During the pandemic, risk management across the board has been essential. Post-Pandemic, with the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19, organizations will still need to manage risk. From a governance perspective, being on top of the small stuff is not a bad place to start.

The recurring theme here is the presence of the leader. When talking about leadership presence, a physical presence, whilst important, is only one aspect of what is required. What is really being asked for is a degree of intensity. A good leader knows how to listen to and speak to a colleague in a way that makes them feel that the colleague feels as though they are the most important person in the organization at that moment in time. The reality of course is for you as a leader, in your part of the organization, at that point in time, for you, they were the most important person in the organization. Often all you have to do is listen. Tom Peters has a mantra. “Excellence is the next 5 minutes!” What you do, who you speak to and listen to, how and why you are engaging with that person, in that place at that time, defines what you as a leader is accepting as ‘Excellence”. Others viewing this from the sidelines may of course have a different perspective. That should be heard, as feedback. In his excellent work, ‘The Excellence Dividend’, Tom Peters identifies, how to make your presence felt in a positive way.

“Id get up from my desk and wander through the store. Id chat up an employee for thirty seconds, or sometimes five minutes. Id probably meander all told about a half-hour. Corny as it probably sounds, just being in their presence was a genuine high. We were truly a team, and we cared about each other. They were in fact my personal community.”

Peters, Tom. (2018) The Excellence Dividend (eBook). London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p.53.

It is through interactions such as these that you build positive relationships between yourself and your team. There may be a myriad of reasons for doing so, but if the outcome is high-quality relationships with the team and a high degree of cohesiveness as a team, then the question must be, why not be present to the staff, the team? Why not leave them better because of the encounter they have had with you? Why not put people first? It also goes a long way to establishing credibility.

“The lesson for all leaders is this: earning credibility is a retail activity, a factory floor activity, a person-to-person activity. Credibility is gained in small quantities through physical presence. Leaders have to be physically present; they have to be visible, and they have to get close to their constituents to earn their respect and trust. Leaders who are inaccessible cannot possibly expect to be trusted just because they have a title. Credibility is earned via the physical acts of shaking a hand, leaning forward, stopping to listen, and being responsive. By sharing personal experiences, telling their own stories, and joining in dialogue, leaders become people and not just positions.”

Kouzes, James, M., Posner, Barry, Z. (2011), Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand it (eBook). San Francisco. CA: Jossey-Bass. p.38-39.

Kouzes and Posner are definitely onto something here. It is almost impossible to lead if you have very little credibility. The way to overcome that is with a real presence about you and the way you lead. Those that have mastered and regularly manifest a real presence to their staff are often in high demand as leaders, mentors, and advisers to other leaders. What is also intriguing in the longitudinal research of Kouzes and Posner is that there are some key ‘Characteristics of Admirable Leaders’ that have stood the test of time.

“What people want in a leader is someone who is honest and trustworthy, who is competent and has expertise, who has a vision of the future, and who is dynamic and inspiring. People are more cynical today in part because they believe their leaders do not live up to these standards. This gap is not likely to be closed until leaders are able to realign their own principles with those of the people they wish to lead.”

Kouzes, James, M., Posner, Barry, Z. (2011), Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand it (eBook). San Francisco. CA: Jossey-Bass. p.39.

In their more recent research, Kouzes and Posner identified four ‘Characteristics of Admirable Leaders’ that 60% or more of survey respondents, over several years and several countries identified as being a necessary characteristic in any leader, for them to follow.

For the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is:

Honest | Competent | Inspiring | Forward-looking

Kouzes, James, M., Posner, Barry, Z. (2017), The Leadership Challenge (Sixth Edition): How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (eBook). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p.42.

It is through interactions such as these that you build positive relationships between yourself and your team.


Whilst we often talk about the credibility of the leaders who operate at the top end of the organization at a macro level, anthropologically, credibility is established, maintained, and lost at the micro-level, the personal level, one person at a time. It may seem obvious but to some, this doesn’t always register. It also means that to enjoy a high level of credibility as a leader, you must touch the hearts and minds of a critical mass of employees throughout the organization. To build and maintain credibility is to have presence and to have the trust of others.

For Stephen. M. R. Covey in his excellent book ‘The Speed of Trust’, organizations deal with ‘The Waves of Trust’. These are:

  • Wave 1: Self Trust
  • Wave 2: Relationship Trust
  • Wave 3: Organizational Trust
  • Wave 4: Market Trust
  • Wave 5: Societal Trust

Of these, Wave 1 deals specifically with credibility, and Wave 2 obviously impacts this. Within Wave 1, there are ‘4 Cores’ that one must attend to if credibility is the issue.

These ‘4 Cores’ are:

  1. Integrity
  2. Intent
  3. Capabilities
  4. Results

The first two according to Covey, attend to a person’s character, the last two attend to a person’s competence. All ‘4 Cores’ are required for credibility. To find out more read: Covey, Stephen. M. R., with Merrill, Rebecca, R. (2008). The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. London: Pocket Books. pp.32-58.

It is therefore important for any leader, especially a new leader, to prioritize those things that create and maintain credibility. You can put together many lists as to how to do this. On the surface, some items must be obvious.

  • Attend to your team through a real presence to them.
  • Bring your best character and professional competence to the table of credibility.
  • Communicate with your team and create the space for them to attend to their credibility.
  • Develop professional relationships with the team.
  • Ensure what you say and what you do are congruent. Engagements reflect priorities.
  • Find opportunities. Volunteer to do things in the organization. Roll up the sleeves, work side-by-side.

This is not meant to be an extensive or exclusive list but rather a starter list, an ABC of what you can do straight away to build and maintain credibility. Be mindful, that without a real presence to your staff, the rest becomes almost impossible to achieve. The employees need to see you and hear from you. For leaders of large government agencies this has huge implications. Typically the leaders of the agency are based in the city where the political minister or secretary is based. For a state government agency, there would typically be offices around the state. Thankfully COVID19 has introduced us to video conferencing platforms that can bring the leader to these remote locations, in the virtual space. Of course, the astute leader will realize that when the conditions of the pandemic allow, a personal visit to these locations is critical to credibility success and no doubt appreciated by the workers on the front line. Ultimately, the leader engages with the presence/credibility agenda every day. Consciously or unconsciously. It is incumbent on the leader to make presence and credibility a conscious, deliberate part of their professional life. The time to start is now!

“To have a life that matters, you just have to start. Start with yourself. Your best story begins when you put yourself back into it. Be in the picture. Stop looking—start living! And offer to help others. Not only will that change your life and positively impact others, it will grow your credibility and moral authority to inspire and lead others to make a difference.” 

Maxwell, John. (2017). The Power of Your Leadership: Making a Difference with Others (eBook). New York. NY: Center Street, Hachette Book Group. p12.

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