Seeking the Elusive Credibility Factor

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UNCERTAINTY is the new normal. The old order has been so shaken that it has become impossible to describe exactly what the present or future holds. Yet, more and more people are asking: where are we headed? What is the vision for the future? This is the credibility conundrum of our age: given how uncertain the organizational environment is and how diverse the constituencies are, how can you achieve consensus on the values that should guide your team and organization?

In the new global marketplace, long-standing processes do not work as they once did, so organizations purge the old and wasteful ones, experimenting with bold and more intelligent systems. Trial-and-error and falling forward become the norm. Constituent heterogeneity multiplies, barriers to collaboration tumble, and functional and departmental boundaries become ambiguous. Environmental concerns collide with industrial demands.

How should organizations be structured? Which values should guide decisionmaking? What impact will multinational and increasingly diverse workforces have on organizations and communities? How will a new generation of Millennials change the human dynamics in the workplace? What skills will be needed for the coming decades, and what are the educational policies necessary to help develop them? What levers need to be pulled in order to fix domestic and global economies? What will be the true impact of global interdependence on the nature of organizations? There is no consensus, only uncertainty.

Credibility is earned when we do what we say we will do but, if the situation itself does not hold still long enough for you to be consistent, how can you be seen as trustworthy? If you do not know which variables will influence the outcome, how can you be seen as competent? If you have to keep experimenting with new approaches, how can you be seen as enthusiastically committed to your beliefs?

There are no easy or certain answers to questions like these, but of this you can be certain: credibility is the foundation of leadership. Act in ways that increase people's belief that you are honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking, and people will be much more likely to want to follow your direction. Of course, you can execute everything perfectly and still get rued.

Organizational life is full of straggles and tensions. These tensions can stretch people to their limits, and not all will be quite sure if they are up to it. Not only that, the realization is setting in that today's turmoil and global challenges probably will continue indefinitely. The world is experiencing a fundamental restructuring of economic, political, and social systems. Organizations are likely to seem more like organized anarchies than like the bureaucracies that typified the public and private sectors in preceding decades.

Leaders feel these tensions acutely because of their responsibilities to set the example and inspire others to work collaboratively toward a shared vision of the future. The leaders who are the most in touch with their constituents--and therefore likely to be the most credible--will experience the pain most intensely. Let us acknowledge these tensions; furthermore, let us even suggest that leaders would do well to learn to love the struggles. Where there is tension there is energy; and where there is energy, there is the possibility of movement; and where there is movement, there is the chance for progress. Making progress is the measure of leadership. So, let us wrestle with some of the tensions and dilemmas that leaders experience as they stretch to strengthen credibility.

Organizational consultant Neale Clapp once told us that the fundamental tension for people in organizations is the tension between freedom and constraint. When do you delegate and when do you decide? When do you accept another's authority and when do you rebel against it? When do you empower others and when do you use authority or position power? …