Everyone’s leadership journey begins with establishing personal credibility. If you successfully establish a high degree of credibility, then your voice will carry weight with others. People will naturally want to listen to your ideas, follow your direction, and collaborate with you in achieving mutually shared goals. If you lack credibility as a leader, then influencing others to achieve results will be problematic, if not impossible.
Think of your credibility like you are building a camping tent. When in a survival situation, establishing shelter takes precedence over all other needs. One can go three days without water, but will die in just a few short hours if left outside in the harsh elements. Similarly, the first step in becoming a leader is to establish your credibility. Each pole in the tent plays an important role in keeping the tent upright. If a single pole is missing, the tent falls over. Likewise, if leaders fail to demonstrate each pole in their tent consistently, their credibility will crumble. Yet, if leaders practice each pole of the tent regularly, they will have a strong shelter of credibility from which to survive the challenges of leadership.
So what actions can a leader take to increase and maintain his or her credibility? First, demonstrating technical competence is the long pole in our tent of credibility. Competence is the price of admission for leadership as one must know their trade and the roles and responsibilities of those they lead. You don’t have to know everything about everyone’s job, but you must have a general level of expertise that earns the respect of your followers. So, let’s assume that you are already demonstrating a high degree of technical competence, as most managers are. What else can one do to create even higher levels of credibility?
1. Walk Your Talk – Call it what you like; walking your talk, practice what you preach, put your money where your mouth is, or simply doing what you say you are going to do. They are all different ways of stating a fundamental leadership truth—a leader’s credibility is a function of how well he or she follows through on his or her promises. It seems so easy, yet, life often gets in the way. With so many stakeholders to please, leaders can easily get in the habit of over-committing themselves. Then, when they fail to deliver on a commitment, they lose credibility. It is the small commitments that we need to be particularly mindful of. The well-intentioned, “I’ll call you back in 15 minutes,” to a client or “Let’s chat about your professional goals next week” to a subordinate that can get us in trouble. When we fail to deliver on these small promises, we also increase the likelihood to miss on our bigger commitments. That’s because we are practicing a lack of credibility and it becomes easier over time to shift our personal standards. So how do we build the habits that lend us greater credibility? Leaders practice managing the expectations of others, and then they over-deliver on those expectations. First, work with your stakeholders to agree upon realistic commitments, even if they are not initially satisfied with your proposed conditions for success. Then, work extra hard to exceed those expectations. For example, if a client wants to talk immediately but you are in a meeting, promise to call them back in less than 15 minutes. They may not be happy, but then manage your time so as to call them back in just 5 minutes. You have now exceeded their standard and have protected, if not enhanced, your credibility.
2. Clarify Expectations – Not fully understanding a leader’s expectations is one of the most frustrating things a follower can experience. It is likely that you have felt firsthand how demotivating this can be. You work your tail off on a project and proudly present your efforts to the boss, only to have him say “this is not what I wanted!” Credible leaders never leave the definition of success a mystery. They clearly explain, upfront and directly, their expectations of followers. The key to doing this well is to communicate expectations by explaining your intent as a leader. A well communicated intent purposefully avoids telling followers “how” something is to be done. Followers can then demonstrate initiative and create the conditions for success by exercising their own creativity. So what then does a well communicated intent include? It is made up of three focused components: task, purpose, and endstate.
- Task – This is explaining the “what” you want followers to do. Most managers are good at this already so we won’t spend much time on it.
- Purpose – This is the “why” we need to do it. Frequently as managers, we fail to explain this to our followers. People need to understand the bigger rationale for his or her hard work. It’s motivating to have a deeper purpose than simply doing a task because my manager said it was important; especially if that purpose connects to a shared goal or team objective. More importantly, things change, and if I know why I am doing a task, I can begin to exercise leadership on my own and make decisions in my manager’s absence that will yield success.
- Endstate – This is when we explain “what right looks like in the end.” The leader should try to “paint a picture” in the mind’s eye of his or her followers as to exactly what he or she expects. The more vivid the image, the better. Often when we do this process, powerful questions will emerge that help enable new levels of clarity for both the leader and followers alike. A great technique to ensure you haven’t missed anything as a leader is to ask for a “back-brief.” This allows the follower to explain what they heard the leader’s expectations to be. Often through verbalizing what they think they heard back to the leader, miscommunications can be identified and prevented before they become an issue.
3. Trust but Verify – After you communicate expectations, follow up does need to happen. This doesn’t mean that you hover over people’s shoulders while they perform their tasks and then inspect their work. No one appreciates micro-management! Instead, leaders provide the proper resources, get out of the way, and trust that great work will happen in their absence. Yet, it doesn’t end there. Leaders verify that expectations and standards have been met. First, it’s a general courtesy to those that are doing the work. If I work hard to meet a leader’s expectations, I expect that my leader will care enough to check-in on my progress. Second, if I do a great job, it is important to me that the leader recognize my work. Finally, if I have missed expectations, I deserve to know that as well. Verification is a very important part of establishing and maintaining credibility as it validates your leadership priorities and personal values.
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