Leadership Credibility before Vulnerability

Humankind has moved from great leadership being based on birthright to learned leadership behaviours Both of these methodologies are leader centric approaches versus developing, inspiring, and inspiring greatness in others (see previous Blog entitled “The Quest for Great Leadership”).

One of the leadership attributes that would not have been widely agreed to in the past (think Genghis Khan), is vulnerability.  Today we know that in our extremely dynamic, connected world things move too quickly for a command-and-control leadership style; we need front line people to be empowered to make decisions in real time.  For a complex organization with relational (distributed) leadership to be effective, team members must be engaged and connected with leadership at a deep level not just as followers, but participants. 

Vulnerability can play a key role in deep engagement and is an important element of transparency, or Talk Straight, as suggested by Stephen Covey in his 13 high trust behaviours.  If a leader makes a mistake, or just doesn’t have the answer, that is a moment to be vulnerable and engage the emotions and support of their team.  This level of engagement can strengthen the team and bring them closer together, building on an inclusive culture, or potentially it can weaken a team’s connection to their leader.

The Pratfall Effect (Aronson, Willerman, Floyd; Psychon.Sci. 1966 Vol.4(6)) concludes that a person with high existing attractiveness (read “credibility”) adds to that credibility if they make and admit to a mistake, whereas a person with mid or lower credibility will see a decrease in credibility if they make and admit to the same mistake.

What are the implications for Leaders?  First of all, there appears to be a logical order to moving towards a more mature leadership and organizational culture state.  A foundation of trust and credibility is required prior to the development of an ideal transparent and inclusive culture. As Stephen Covey points out “The first job of any leader is to inspire trust. Trust is confidence born of two dimensions: character and competence. Character includes your integrity, motive, and intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, skills, results, and track record. Both dimensions are vital.”

Creating leadership credibility through trust is a fundamental building block.  As the Pratfall Effect highlights, trying to leapfrog the trust & credibility foundation and moving straight to a highly transparent and open leadership style that employs vulnerability, could reduce credibility rather than gain trust and support. 

Credibility will look and feel different for every leader.  Like most other things, credibility is in the eye of the beholder.  Individuals, through their own filters (analytic, emotional, personal need …) innately measure and monitor the credibility of others on an ongoing basis.  Leaders need to be conscious of the level of trust and credibility they have with their teams.  Gaining credibility is like any other human connection, it is personal and is enhanced by consistency of words and actions, and by listening, which brings understanding – How, as a leader, can you add value if you don’t understand?

Finally, high credibility does not require perfection, nor should a leader expect to have high credibility with every team member.  Therefore, moving to an open, transparent and vulnerable leadership style is like everything else, there is risk involved in the action.  Be conscious of, and build credibility, and then make the move as soon as possible so the organization can enjoy increased engagement and innovation, along with the many other benefits of an open and inclusive culture.