How to Establish Credibility as a New Leader (or at Least in a New Role)
Why should people follow you? What makes you credible in your peoples’ eyes and the eyes of the organization?
Popular leadership author, John Maxwell, describes that if you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following you, then you are just taking a walk.
So, why are people following you? What gives you…or any of us…the right?
Credibility, legitimacy, and authority are often at the top of any new leader’s mind as they anxiously assume their first official leadership role. Imposter syndrome, fear of insufficient experience, and a lack of understanding of where to start or even how to carry out this new job can all begin to overwhelm us on day one.
Yet, this is not just for new leaders in their first leadership position and I am an easy example. I am now on my tenth job assignment in only 13 years in the military. And even after 13 years and plenty of experience moving into new roles, I still find myself worried as I assume a new role. I don’t really think I know how to do this job. All these people are going to know more and have more experience than me. They are going to easily see right through me. I’m not ready for this.
So, what makes us credible as leaders, especially if we are moving into a new job or with a new team? Sure, experience is important for people to view us as legitimate. But what if we don’t have experience to rely on? Yes, we can point to our resume to show all the things we’ve done before this. But honestly, who really cares about what you’ve done before? People want to know what you’re going to do now and if you are worth following…worth trusting.
We can build credibility without experience, though. It comes down to intentional, consistent, and caring behaviors as a leader. Let’s look at what we can do to establish credibility as leaders, especially if we do not have experience as a justifier.
Why Credibility Matters
I don’t believe many of us reading this need to be told why credibility matters as a leader. However, it is worth ensuring we understand the far-reaching impacts of leader credibility to encourage intentionality in establishing it. Establishing credibility is not simply a check-the-block quality that once achieved, we’ve arrived or are set as a leader.
When people view their leader as credible, it generates loyalty and cohesion. It is one of the three main ingredients for trust within an organizational setting (plus character and care). People then place their faith and confidence in their leader.
Once these important and personal keys are willingly given to us by others, we begin to see willing buy-in from the team. People begin to care about and commit to who we are, what we do, and why we do it, rather than simply complying with a transactional attitude. We begin to cultivate safety among the team, encouraging transparency and honesty. It inspires elevated performance from individuals and groups. We achieve mutual respect within the team.
Our credibility as a leader does much more than just set us up personally for success. Being perceived as credible is a critical ingredient to unlocking powerful dynamics within our team and among people.
Eight Behaviors to Establish Credibility
If we don’t have experience and don’t have a reputation to rely on, what can we do to establish credibility? Luckly, we have plenty of tools available to us to start today.
Lead with Focused Purpose
Credible leaders establish a vision and goals, and keep the team aligned to those every day. A lack of team focus is the enemy of credibility.
Effective leaders do not merely react to their environment every day. We are intentional, set a vision, map a direction, and provide purpose. Leaders bring focus and clarity to the team’s enduring “why.” We set priorities and keep pushing and pulling the team on a specific path through obstacles, change, and setbacks. We do this every day.
Use Clear, Simple Communication
Credible leaders use clear, simple, and compelling communication to keep the team inspired, empowered, and aligned. Confusing, incomplete, and poor communication kills credibility.
Leaders are constantly communicating. Through their words, actions, and presence, leaders are always sending messages. Our guidance must be clear, concise, and complete. It cannot confuse, it should be aligned to the team’s vision and priorities, and be sufficient to empower others to act. When we share information, we need to ensure it is well structured so that our people can understand the “what, the why, and the how.” And when we aim to inspire, we should share perspective to enable others to see how their one puzzle piece fits within the larger puzzle and how critical that one piece is.
Have a Decision-Making System
Credible leaders involve others in their decision-making, assess and own risk, and make decisions to continue driving the organization forward. Decision paralysis can cripple credibility.
Leaders need to have a well-defined decision-making process that suits our unique ways of thinking, understanding, assessing, and acting. Our process should be well-known to the team so they can support it efficiently, and it is not a guessing game for them.
We need to involve others. We should listen and seek to understand others to gather insight. We must understand, assess, and own risk. And then we commit, making clear and timely decisions, owning the consequences and sharing the recognition.
We gain credibility when we make and own decisions, make them efficiently but ensure they are well-thought-out, and involve others to ensure it is based on sound information.
Credible leaders let others know what they are thinking, where they are coming from, and why. Fear and shame crumble the foundations of leader credibility.
Leaders are not heroes, all knowing, nor invincible to doubt. We educate people on what is going on in the environment around them and how we have arrived at our current situation. We describe why. We explain our decisions. We help others understand. While there is a trust-transparency dichotomy (when people ask why, they are also inherently messaging that they don’t trust us), leaders cannot ask for or expect trust. We earn trust by giving transparency, and transparency given over time encourages trust.
Leader transparency also sounds like, “I don’t know, what do you think?” It sounds like owning and sharing about failure. It can sound like, “help me understand.”
Credible leaders build fair working environments. Leaders perceived as unfair or showing favoritism compromise their credibility.
Fairness is a tough subject. We are not here to build a perfect utopia where everyone is happily singing kumbaya together. But when our people feel they do not have a fair shot or are disadvantaged in some way, they question our credibility. Our decisions and allocation of resources, the processes we use to make those decisions, and how we treat people through it all impact the perception of fairness. Moreover, we must think through allocating resources based on equality (same for everyone), equity (allocations based on effort or contribution), or need in a particular scenario. All these variables impact peoples’ perception of fairness, both for themselves personally and holistically across the team.
Act with Integrity
Credible leaders do the right things, for the right reasons, in the right way. Questions of our intent and integrity corrupt our credibility.
The “right things, right reasons, and right ways” must always be in service of the team and others. Author, Adam Grant, states that, “trust requires more than honesty. We count on people who live with integrity. It’s one thing to be truthful in what you say today. It’s another to uphold your commitments tomorrow. Honesty is being candid as you talk. Integrity is honoring those words as you walk.”
Our audio must match our visual as a leader every day and in every way.
Credible leaders do not view themselves as the main thing. Self-interested leaders do not cultivate credibility.
C.S. Lewis described humility as not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less. We encourage credibility, loyalty, and trust when we place the needs of the team and others first. Humble leaders remain others-focused in decisions, throughout conversations, and how they treat everyone no matter what is going on.
Credible leaders connect with others and place people first. Uncredible leaders lose touch and can’t relate to their people.
Leadership will always be a people business first and foremost. Leaders care for their people. We are approachable, enjoyable to work with and be around, and can connect with our teammates no matter how far apart we are from one another on the org chart. We should be willing to show our personality, our humanity, our flaws, passions, and desires. We can gain credibility when our people see us also as a person, imperfect but always doing our best.
We might not have experience…yet. But none of the above behaviors require us to have experience. Yet, these behaviors all directly contribute to cultivating credibility with our people. These are reflections of our character and care as a leader.
Through consistent and authentic efforts in living out these behaviors, we build credibility. More importantly, though, we also build trust, buy-in, psychological safety, mutual respect, and cohesion. We begin to build a more inspired, caring, committed, and high-performing team. Ultimately, it’s not about us anyway. Our credibility is simply a mechanism toward building better teams.