At a recent lecture about journalism and the presidency, I heard a quote by the distinguished broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow that is as relevant today as it was during his career and as applicable to leadership as it was to his profession.
To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.
In the current climate of “fake news,” hostile partisanship and social media bullying, the credibility of our leaders is constantly being called into question. Everyone promises “transparency,” but it is often little more than a buzzword. It is incumbent upon leaders in every sphere and at every level to earn the trust of their followers and organizations. It is possible to govern without it, or to manage without it, by using one’s authority to impose decisions, but that is not leadership.
I spent the first 17 years of my academic career at one college, where I started as a paraprofessional and left as a vice president. As I took on positions with increased responsibility, moving from co-worker to supervisor, I was able to build on relationships based on trust. My colleagues knew my strengths (and weaknesses). They knew, because I had proven my integrity through my actions, that I would keep my promises. I was proud of my reputation and when I interviewed for the presidency of another college I confidently promised to be truthful. I never imagined that my credibility would be in doubt.
Therefore, when I assumed that presidency, I was shocked to discover that the people I was now leading did not trust me. They admitted to holding back, doubting that I would follow through, and to being surprised when I actually did what I said I would do. At first, I was offended. How could they not believe me?
But then I realized that they did not really know me. Before they could be persuaded they had to have confidence in my credibility. Verbal assurances were not sufficient. I had to acquire their trust over time, through my actions, as I had done before.
Truth is as much about what you do as a leader as it is about what you say.