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  • Writer's pictureDJ

Credibility: the leader’s greatest asset

Advice from the Business Coach

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway

These lines are almost a century old, but they’re as relevant now as they were when Hemingway wrote them in his breakthrough 1926 novel. And their relevance extends beyond financial issues. When things go wrong for us in the workplace, they often go wrong gradually and then very suddenly. We may not recognize the warning signs, we may not realize how serious a problem might become, and we may simply underestimate the power of momentum. When something starts accelerating down a slippery slope, it’s very difficult to arrest the slide.

In recent weeks we’ve seen a very high-profile example of the speed with which momentum can shift. A new Prime Minister with a commanding Parliamentary majority lost all influence and finally lost their job in a matter of weeks. Most of us will never find ourselves in a position of such power, or such public exposure (although if Britain’s pattern of changing leaders every six weeks continues, more of us might get the opportunity than expected).

We all find ourselves in positions of responsibility, though, and we all have choices to make in the way we earn and keep the respect of those around us. We don’t have to be liked, but we do have to be credible. If our teams get the feeling we don’t know what we’re doing, decline can set in at lightning speed. So how can we establish credibility, and how can we ensure we don’t throw it away?

You don’t have to be good at everything, but you ought to be demonstrably good at something

When we’re establishing ourselves as leaders of a team, there’s a temptation to try to prove we know everything they know and can do everything they can do. We need to resist it. Being a busy fool who dips in and out of every task without truly mastering any one of them is no way to earn respect. It may expose your lack of expertise in important fields, and may also send out a message that you don’t value the expertise others bring to the table.

Instead of micro-managing, take an overview that gives people the freedom to show their skills and the reassurance that you’ll help when needed. And identify a way to show what you do well. Pick a task that showcases your worth and execute it in a way that adds value for others and makes their lives easier. It might be strategic or it might be hands-on. Just demonstrate, quickly and without fuss, why you’re there, and let others demonstrate why they are.

Don’t bet against the market

In other words, if you’re going to go out on a limb, ignoring conventional wisdom and the advice of those around you, you’d better be right. When we’re tempted to follow a path that no one else agrees with, it can be very appealing to imagine ourselves saying “I told you so” after being proved right. But it’s a high-stakes bet. Get it wrong, and you’ll have earned a reputation for arrogance, for not being a team player and, worst of all, for failure.

Choose your opponents carefully

Who needs enemies within their own team? Make it clear as soon as you can that you regard everyone in your team as an ally. Sharpen that sense of unity by identifying other, competing organizations and brainstorming ways to beat them. If you start from the position that everyone around the table is a friend, and together you’ll find a way to come out on top against the real opponents, you can create a sense of inclusive leadership. Sometimes of course you have to act decisively when team members aren’t contributing or pulling in the same direction. If you do it after establishing that you want to work with them and want them to succeed individually and as part of the team, you stand a far better chance of turning their performance around. And if things don’t improve, other team members will see that you made every effort to make it work. The nightmare scenario, of course, is that your unreasonable actions make an enemy of a team member who is popular, productive or both. Few things drain credibility and authority more quickly than an internal dispute that you started with a person whose contribution is widely valued. Sometimes the actions we imagine make us look strong are only making us look weak.

Good luck establishing credibility with your teams, and good luck keeping it. The working day is far easier to navigate when you do.


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