Credibility As a Foundation for Leadership1


Characteristics of Leadership: Credibility as a Foundation for Leadership

Nicholas Barlett

Virginia Commonwealth University

Characteristics of Leadership: Credibility as a Foundation For Leadership

In every organization a leader is needed to step forward and guide stakeholders to a goal. This person must make difficult decisions, take risks, break the status quo and have the knowledge to know how to do this. A foundational understanding of what it means to lead others is essential to being a leader. This introspective search for the components that make up a great leader are done partly by learning from the examples of those who have demonstrated exemplary leadership. Understanding the basic qualities that these great leaders displayed allows us to see what they did that worked and what did not. We also can determine what applied to our fields and predict the impact using these techniques may have in our practice.

Leadership cannot simply be learned by watching those that have done it well and copying what successful leaders do. It requires students of leadership to look inward. Reflection of what an individual holds to be essential and what others see as important characteristics can show what areas within us can be developed. Developing these areas can guide us to the ultimate goal of being the best leader we can be.


Essential to becoming a better leader is a deep understanding of what characteristics great leaders have. Once these characteristics have been identified a student of leadership must evaluate these traits in themselves. The doctoral cohort I am in at this time has been indispensable in exposing me to these characteristics. Through multiple inventories and a 360 evaluation we have been able to access our personalleadership characteristics. With a knowledge of what it takes to be a great leader and a better understanding of the qualities that we possess I feel better equipped to grow as a leader.

Central to this process is to define what it means to be a leader. Tomes have been filled with this topic but at the core of the definition for leadership is the ability to influence others to achieve a goal(Hughes, 2009). Some of the characteristics that have been identified in other studies of leadership characteristic follow a more quantitative model are interpersonal skills, group management, time management, expertise (Christopher, Duemer, Hardin, Olibas, Rodgers & Spiller, 2004). A qualitative and quantitative study of leadership traits in 2004 drew correlations between successful leadership and neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experiences, agreeableness and conscientiousness (Bono, Gerhardt, Ilies & Judge, 2002). Somewhat more esoteric but no less essential to leadership are qualities like the ability to motivate others and having a clear vision for the organization (Eres, 2011).

In looking at the qualities that are prized in leaders I most closely related to those that related to interpersonal relationships. In studying the leadership principles of Wilfred Drath (2001), I felt that Interpersonal Influence was the leadership style that most comfortably meshed with my ideas of leadership. This leadership principle is marked by the ability of the leaders to guide colleagues in a direction while still using their ideas and expertise to meet an adaptive challenge or a challenge that has no set guidance on how to address it. As opposed to the Personal Dominance Principle and the Relational Dialogue principle, Interpersonal Influence allows leaders to make decisions with the feedback of the stakeholders that they are leading.The Personal Dominance Principle is a leadership style that places the authority of setting a focus for the organization in the hands of the leader. While this can allow for quick organizational changes because the leader is not encumbered by checking with his stakeholders, the leader also is solely responsible for meeting any challenges that confront the organization. The Relational Dialogue Principle enables those that are being led to contribute to the goal of the organization but it also requires disparate groups with varied interests to work together towards a common goal. For these reasons I have found that among Drath’s principles, that Interpersonal influence was the most aligned with my personal ideals of leadership.

My desire to develop a relationship with stakeholders while still having the ability to set a direction and establish standards of performance are seen in the results on my 360 Evaluation Report. My result s for “Setting Direction”, “Teamwork”, “Sensitivity”, “Judgment” were the highest and all ranked between the outstanding and highly effective ranges. All of these relate to both my desire to work collaboratively as well as my desire to help set the direction for the schools in which I work. All of which require building strong relationships with stakeholders.

As I began looking at these relationship-based characteristics I felt that many of these qualities seemed so closely related that there must be something to draw these concepts together. In researching I found the work of James Kouzes and Barry Posner. In their research they combine the three characteristics of trustworthy, expertise and dynamism, under the umbrella of credibility. This seems to be a foundational component to effective leadership.

Scholarly Support for Credibility as a Foundation of Leadership

If leading is the act of guiding constituents toward a shared goal then credibility is the reason that those constituents decide to follow at all. In his 2009 article in Public Health Nutrition, Roger Hughes plainly stated “At the core of leadership is the attribute of credibility” (Hughes, 2009). It is for this reason that credibility has become a focus of leadership scholars who are seeking a foundation for building a model for exemplary leadership.

Across a variety of disciplines it has been repeated that credibility is a quality which effective leaders possess.In their study published in the Review of Public Personnel Administration Gerald Gabris and Douglas Ihrke (2000)examine whether leadership credibility has a role to play in the acceptance of a new initiative like a merit pay system. Their findings demonstrated that the credibility of a leader significantly increased the success and performance of these programs. This study illustrates the fact that having a credible leader can rub off on to other people or programs. If a credible leader put his or her support behind an initiative then that initiative carries more gravitas as well(GabrisIhrke, 2000).

Thomas Hatch, Melissa White and Deborah Faigenbaum (2005) researched why four master teachers were able to have a major impact in their field. While their study illustrates that there is no formula on how to make a great teacher leader they found that one of the characteristics which they shared was profound sense of credibility among their colleagues. In looking at their subjects they found that their constant search for expertise was essential to their credibility. (Faigenbaum, Hatch & White, 2005)

Limitations Inherent in Credibility

While confidence is important to building credibility, it can create a backlash when leaders are inaccurate. Confidence in a leader that is wrong appears to be misleading. Since trust is an important componentof credibility, having a leader who is wrong betrays that trust. It is made worse when that leader is so confident that they do not see their error. Rather than credibility, a leader that is confident but wrong is seen as arrogant. Research shows that leaders in this circumstance see a precipitous drop in their credibility; even deeper than a leader that is wrong and does not behave confidently (MacCoun, Moore & Sah, 2013).

Kouzes and Posner readily admit that in modern American culture there is a predisposition to be leery of anyone proposing to be a trustworthy, devoted or ethical leader worthy to guide anyone. In the modern era there are examples of CEO’s collecting huge paychecks while their companies are bailed out by the government. Politicians have been caught with their hands out and their pants down. Religious leaders have stolen from the offering plate. There exist plenty of examples of leader who lack some of the core attributes like honesty, knowledge or the ability to motivate. If these are essential to being a credible leader then why have others succeeded without these qualities? This disillusionment has created a kneejerk distrust of those trying to take on leadership roles. Establishing credibility in this environment is made difficult immediately because of the baseline cynicism facing any leader. (Kouzes & Posner, 1993)

Going back to 1532CE, Niccolo Machiavelli pointed out in The Princethat leaders have been confronted with deciding whether or not to spend time and effort on building relationships with constituents. This sentiment is seen in his famous question “Is it better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?” He warned that trying to garner the affections of those you lead is a fool’s errand. It is much simpler to spend time focused on the goals that are central to an organization’s vision (Machiavelli, 1947). While keeping constituents around you in fear is an outmoded form of leadership the truth still exists that building relationships are complicated and require constant maintenance. For this reason building credibility can be cumbersome for those trying to create sudden changes within an organization. It also represents turning over some of the authority inherent in a leadership role. The collaborative nature involved in building credibility requires a leader to accept that constituents hold power as well. This complicates matters because leaders must reckon with those that they are trying to lead.(Kouzes & Posner, 2003)

Strength Inherent in Credibility

Credibility can be contagious. When someone who is seen as credible supports a new leader the fact that this person has the backing of a credible person engenders a predisposition to find them as credible as well. As leaders work to grow the capacity of others to take on leadership roles, the ability to give their colleagues an immediate boost to their credibility is a great advantage(GabrisIhrke, 2000).

Credibility provides a cushion. Credible leaders can be wrong more often than leaders that lack credibility. Since followers are willing to assume that credible leaders are correct they are less likely to question them. This cushion can allow leaders to take risks that are needed for an organization to excel(MacCoun, Moore & Sah, 2013).

Credibility creates motivation within constituents. Leaders that have established credibility have developed a common vision for an organization with their constituents. Creating a shared vision is no small task but Kouzes and Posner (1988) explained why this is so important. They pointed out that a shared vision necessarily means that followers had to buy in to the ideas of others while adding their own. The direct participation of an individual gives them a stake in the success of an organization. Stakeholders are more likely to do more that is expected of them because they have a vested interest in the organization (Kouzes & Posner, 1988)

The rewards of leadership built on credibility are greater. There are endless approaches to leadership but leaders that create credibility must establish relationships with constituents. Leaders have been able to achieve success without endeavoring to gain a closer connection with those whom they lead but they have weakened the link that the followers feel with why they are moving toward a goal. The credible leader will have his or her entire team to celebrate with at the realization of a goal. Leaders that lack this connection are isolated from their constituents and have no one with whom to rejoice (Kouzes & Posner, 1993).

From the field of public health, human resources, business and education, scholars have recognized the power of credibility. All of these disciplines highlight this characteristic because they are fields that require interpersonal relationships. When relationships are important to an organization, credibility is a quality that can create a powerful connection with constituents. Leaders seeking to be credible must be diligent and deal with many obstacles but it is so empowering that it is needed to drive constituents toward a goal.

Adding Credibility to Practice

Modern leaders must have a foundational understanding of credibility because leadership is a relationship. Leaders can choose what kind of relationship they want with those that they leading but there is no avoiding that a connection of some sort is ubiquitous. It is well documented that leaders who have established a relationship of credibility are much more likely to have the support of their constituents. The next great benefit of a credible leader is the fact that constituents will contribute their own expertise to meet a common vision because they contributed to making this vision. Embracing this characteristic is not just great in theory. Credibility must be used in practice as well.

The practice of creating a credo or statement that roots all of your decisions is a strategy to develop credibility. Followers want to know what their leaders value. A credo grounds a leader in a truth which allows followers to predict and feel comfort in knowing what drives their leaders. Holding to one’s credo is important because it requires leaders to follow another practice that is paramount to developing trust and credibility(Kouzes & Posner, 2003).

Credible leaders must say what they mean and mean what they say. Paying lip service to an item that is important to a constituent corrodes a leader’s credibility. On the other hand a leader that can point to a track record of doing what they say they are going to do provides their followers with solace in the knowledge that they can depend on their leader to be a person of their word (Kouzes & Posner, 2003).

Credibility does not just generate among followers because you are charismatic. One of the keys to building credibility is getting closer. Leaders must open themselves as human beings and followers must be known beyond the information in a staff directory. Opening up to colleagues demonstrates your trust for them. This transparency will serve to show others that you have nothing to hide. Leaders that have nothing to hide are much more likely to be trustworthy and therefore have more credibility (Kouzes & Posner, 2003).

If leaders are going to be an open book then they must ensure that they are ethical by nature. Scandals have littered the headlines in recent years of leaders of all different kinds that experience a fall from grace because of unethical behaviorthat surfaced. Even the most credible leaders cannot completely shield themselves from the damage that comes with a tarnished reputation. (MacCoun, Moore & Sah, 2013).

Practitionerswithin education leadership can take some specific steps to build credibility. In the field of education, learning is sincerely respected. Therefore expanding on expertise is a valuable tool for increasing credibility. A leader that is constantly in search of ways to growth in skill and knowledge is tantalizingly credible but even more powerful is taking what is learned and sharing it with colleagues. Discussing new discoveries with those that are following builds a closer relationship as well. The extension of this is to carry what was learned outside of the school or organization. Not only is it possible to now create connections with a new expanded group of colleagues but credibility is bolstered with the original group of colleagues because the leader’s new ideas have been valued outside of the school or organization (Faigenbaum, Hatch & White, 2005).

The practice of building a means to showcase the knowledge or skills of constituents of an organization is a great way for educational leaders to increase their credibility. A leader that demonstrates a desire to build capacity within followers shows devotion and that they want to push others to succeed. This results in a positive feedback loop where a credible leader passes on credibility to a follower by supporting them and this act results in increased credibility of the leader (Faigenbaum, Hatch & White, 2005).


I have found that being a credible leader is essential to my role as a leader. My 360 evaluation illustrates that on the back of these relationships I have created credibility with those whom I work. A feeling of mutual trust in the expertise of one another within the organization is essential to getting colleagues to move with you towards our common goal. While a positive relationship is not always possible a leader can always be seen as credible. If this leader has established trust, demonstrated an expertise in their field and communicated a vision for the future they can gain credibility with those that they are diametrically opposed to. This ability to reach all members of an organization makes credibility an exceptionally powerful tool for leaders.

Leaders that lack credibility are doomed to fight with their constituents as they drag them toward a goal that the leader has predetermined. Among all of the characteristics that researchers have identified as part of what makes a great leader, credibility has been shown time and again in a variety of disciplines to be central to what constitutes a great leader. By evaluating the practices that credible leaders used we can challenge ourselves to add them to our regular practices. The far reaching and powerful nature of credible leadershipmakes it a foundational characteristic for leaders.