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Book review: Credibility — how leaders gain and lose it

This review first ran in the Jan. 15 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It

By  James Kouzes and Barry Posner

Jossey-Bass

$33.95

Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.

Be careful of your words, for your words become your deeds.

Be careful of your deeds, for your deeds become your habits.

Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.

Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

And to this sage advice, authors and leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner offer one more pearl of wisdom.

Be careful of your leadership, for your leadership becomes your legacy.

“Read these six simple lines at the start of every day,” say Kouzes and Posner in their new and revised book. “They will remind you that what you do as a leader begins in your mind, gets expressed in your words, and then gets translated into your actions. Over time, those actions become who you are, determine the credibility you earn, and shape the legacy you leave.”

If you’re a leader in need of something more concrete, here’s what 75,000 people say are the top characteristics of admired leaders. Whether surveyed in 2010, 2002 or 1987, folks the world over have selected honesty, forward-looking, inspiring and competence as the four must-have leadership traits.

Drawing on more than three decades of research, Kouzes and Posner say that honesty remains the most important leadership attribute.  Honest leaders earn our respect. They do what they say and deliver on their promises and commitments. “Honesty is absolutely essential to leadership. If people are going to follow someone willingly, whether into battle or into the boardroom, they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust.”

All of us continually ask the same question about our organizational and political leaders. Does this person deserve our trust?

“If your answer is yes, then follow,” advise Kouzes and Posner. “Even if your endeavour is unsuccessful, you will still respect yourself. If your answer is ‘I don’t know,” get more information and get it fast. But if your answer is no, find another job or find another leader.”

As for the other top traits, admired leaders are forward looking and know how to communicate a clear and compelling vision of how things could and should be.  Admired leaders are inspiring, dynamic, uplifting, enthusiastic, positive and optimistic. And admired leaders are competent. They have a winning track record with the skills and know-how to get the job done.  Nothing destroys our confidence in a leader quite like swashbuckling overconfidence combined with a frightening lack of ability.

The common theme running through these traits is credibility. “People everywhere want to believe in their leaders. They want to have faith and confidence in them as people. People want to believe that their leaders’ words can be trusted, that they have the knowledge and skills necessary to lead, and that they are personally excited and enthusiastic about the direction in which they are headed.”

Credible leaders inspire loyalty and commitment. Less than credible leaders get only compliance from disengaged followers.

“It is the credibility of the leadership that determines whether people will volunteer a little more of their time, talent, energy, experience, intelligence, creativity and support in order to achieve significant improvement levels. Managers can threaten people with the loss of jobs if they don’t get with the program, but threats, power and position do not earn commitment. They earn compliance. And compliance produces adequacy – not greatness.”

To earn and sustain credibility, Kouzes and Posner have identified six disciplines for leaders.   

1. Discover yourself. What do you believe in? What do you stand for?  Do you have the confidence to deliver? The will and skill to persist in the face of adversity and uncertainty?

2. Appreciate your constituents. “Leadership is a dialogue, not a monologue,” say XXX. We’re more likely to trust and follow a leader who has our best interests at heart.

3. Affirm shared values. Admired leaders have a gift for staking out common ground on which we can all stand and get along with one another.

4. Develop capacity. “People cannot contribute to the aims and aspirations of an organization if they do not know what to do, and they cannot contribute if they do not know how to do it.”

5. Serve a purpose. “Leadership is a service. Leaders exist to serve a purpose for the people who have made it possible for them to lead.”

6. And sustain hope. “An upbeat attitude is always essential, and it’s even more important in troubling times. People with high hope have higher aspirations and higher levels of performance.” When times are rough, we want leaders who are personally there for us.

Follow these six disciplines of credibility and Kouzes and Posner say you’ll join the ranks of admired leaders. You’ll earn our trust. Gain our respect. Win our support. And we’ll help you do something amazing that leaves a remarkable legacy. 

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