When leading teams, credibility is a prerequisite for support from the group. This does not mean that you have to be an expert in the project domain, or have a stellar record of leading teams on complex projects (although these help). Instead in means that people trust you as a person, they believe that you are looking towards the right end goal, have a fair idea of how to get there, and can generate enthusiasm for the work.
James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best selling book “The Leadership Challenge” have undertaken extensive studies that ask company employees “What values do you look for in a leader?” Over a 10 year period they have amassed answers from over 75,000 people and the same qualities recur across industries and cultures.
The top four qualities, year after year, are:
- Forward looking
Perhaps surprisingly, these attributes are rated much higher than qualities such as “intelligence” (phew!), or being “Supportive”, and “Caring”. In fact “Intelligent” only made it into 47% of people’s lists compared to 88% for “Honesty”.
Let’s look at each of the top four attributes in more detail. To willingly follow someone people must believe the leader is:
Honest - Honesty is the single most important ingredient for leaders. No one wants to be lied to or misled. In fact, following a dishonest leader causes a loss of respect for our selves as we begin to question our own ethics and integrity.
Forward looking – Leaders must know where they are going if they expect others to join the journey. We are not talking about magical vision or predicting the future, but instead a down to earth view towards a desirable destination. Kouzes and Posner describe it like this “Leaders need to reveal a beckoning summit towards which others can chart their own course.”
Competent – Leaders do not have to be super efficient, technical geniuses. Instead they just need to be competent enough to guide us. A track record for getting things done is more important than domain expertise as the other team members can fill in any gaps.
Inspiring – People want their leaders to be enthusiastic, energetic and positive about the future. After all, if a leader shows no passion for a cause, why should anyone else? The fact is that emotions are contagious and so if the leader can generate some enthusiasm for the goal, hopefully this will spread to the other team members. No one is suggesting being artificially optimistic (this goes against the honesty), but leaders who can inspire contribution are preferred over dull or pessimistic thinkers.
The Importance of Credibility
These four qualities go a long way to establishing the credibility of a leader. Without credibility leaders can try to establish a compelling vision, empower the team, challenge the process, and all the other good steps of leadership best practice, but will likely fail. Leaders must first be credible since: ”If you don’t believe the messenger, you will not believe the message.”
To get better at leading teams take heart in the fact that you do not need to be technically brilliant in your field and instead focus on the traits of honesty, forward looking, and Inspiring. Demonstrate honesty and integrity by doing what you said you will do; and since high performance is voluntary, stack the deck in your favour by painting a compelling vision for the future and enthusiastically pursuing it.
(Or, learn how to fake “Honesty” then you’ll have it made! :)