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The only way to develop leadership credibility

by | Sep 20, 2023

The Trust Deficit in Leadership


The basis of leadership credibility is trust. As Stephen M. R. Covey explain in his book The Speed of Trust, ‘Trust always affects two measurable outcomes: speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up. This creates a trust tax. When trust goes up, speed goes up and cost goes down. This creates a trust dividend. It’s that simple, it’s that predictable.’


The Trustworthiness Challenge


Research shows that the two most important qualities for leaders to develop are respect and honesty. Unfortunately, leaders often don’t live up to these values. The research firm Willis Towers Watson surveyed 32 000 people in 26 markets and asked them to respond to three statements. The following chart shows what they discovered:


Do we trust our leaders?


Statement assessed Agree (%)
Senior leadership behaves consistently with the organisation’s core values. 56
I believe the information that I receive from senior leadership. 54
My immediate manager acts in ways consistent with his or her words. 57

Source: adapted from Willis Towers Watson, GWS Global Report 2016. 


Another research study performed by DataPad involving 2100 respondents in the UK gauged how much employees trusted their leaders. The survey asked employees the same question on ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ in relation to their executive leadership, heads of department and immediate line managers: 999 people responded to the question on their CEOs; 1264 responded to the question on their immediate managers. Of those who responded to the question ‘Do you trust and respect your CEO?’, 30 per cent responded ‘not at all’ and another 39 per cent responded ‘a little’. Immediate managers were trusted ‘a lot’ by only 48 per cent of those who responded and ‘a little’ by 36 per cent; 16 per cent of immediate managers were not trusted at all.4

It’s actually quite shocking how low these numbers are. One of our favourite questions to ask our clients is, ‘Do you think the leaders who score low are aware that people don’t trust them?’ Evidently, most leaders are not. As professor of psychology Dan Ariely says, ‘Individuals are honest only to the extent that actually suits them, including their desire to please others.’ 

Clearly, we have work to do not only in defining our values, but in committing to actually practise them. The only way to develop real leadership credibility is by actually walking our talk, committing to action and being held accountable for what we commit to. 


Values in Action

Values are far more than lofty, intangible ideals. When applied properly, they are living, breathing forces that direct our behaviour. Are your values a living practice? What practices do you use and what actions do you take daily to align with what you stand for? If you have to think about it, then it’s clearly not actually living or operational in your life. 

Here are a few questions to help you gauge whether or not you are walking your values talk in your life:


  • How did your talk shape your behaviour (walk) over the past week? 
  • At any point, did you refer to the talk you’re trying to walk in order to modify your behaviour? 
  • Can you describe a moment in the past two or three weeks when you had to actively work through fear, a loss of approval or a sense of embarrassment in order to walk your talk? 


If you struggle to answer these questions — as most leaders do — there’s a good chance that you’re not clear on your ‘talk’ and that you have no aligned development practice or ‘walk’. The result is a loss of trust and credibility among those you lead. 

Philippe Deecke, the CFO of Lonza, a multinational chemicals and biotechology company, identifies one of his core values to reinforce as ‘jointly achieving lasting great things’. He admitted to me, however, that he violates this value by taking too long to have tough conversations. ‘I probably err on the side of being too nice,’ he conceded. ‘I can make tough calls, but I try to find ways to get around them. I tend to want to develop people for too long because I believe in their goodness. But if I wait too long, then I become part of the issue.’

‘So,’ I probed, ‘when you are not addressing bad behaviours or poor performance, then you are in direct opposition to your value of achieving great things together as a team? Because then the team suffers. . .’ 

‘Yes, I agree,’ he responded. ‘And what’s worse is that I then overcompensate by providing the answer or solution, rather than empowering my team.’

I asked him about his practice for having tough conversations and making tough calls in order to stay aligned with his value. ‘It’s involving people earlier with issues that impact their work,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I feel this need to be smarter than others, so I feel like I need to come up with a solution before I involve them. I end up involving people too late. So now I make a conscious effort to get people involved before it becomes a problem.’ 

Gervais Tougas, Head of the Chief Medical Office and Patient Safety Group at Novartis, described how his four core values of love, forgiveness, tolerance and compassion guide his behaviour. ‘I used to think they didn’t apply in my professional job,’ he said. ‘But I’ve realised that they are actually excellent frames of reference when I’m trying to deal with situations. So now I am very conscious about applying my values at work. Am I being compassionate? Am I being forgiving? Because it’s a choice. When I’m feeling pulled by contrary feelings and behaviours, I keep reminding myself of my values and the person I want to be.

‘Through mindfulness I’ve cultivated the ability to be more deliberate with my values. I can watch myself and say, Whoa, back off. You’re a loving, tolerant, forgiving, compassionate person. Not that angry guy who’s about to behead somebody. I used to play ice hockey, and that competitive side of me can come out. And it can be tempting to say, That’s just the way I am. Then I remind myself, No, I can choose to be the person I want to be.’ 


Cultivating Growth Through Values


The purpose of holding values is not to pretend that simply identifying with values alone makes us good people. Rather, it’s to help us identify our values breaches, address them, and change our behaviour to grow in the direction of our values. We don’t choose growth values based on who we believe we already are. Rather, we choose them in areas where we see room for improvement. 

By taking committed action in the direction of our values, we consciously move towards who we want to become, reducing the cognitive dissonance we feel and increasing our inner peace. Ultimately, the closer we align our behaviours with our values, the more we create a healthy environment in which all can grow and lead meaningful lives. 

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