By Michael McQueenSeptember 27 2023
American author, speaker and pastor John Maxwell practices what he preaches when it comes to leadership. Over the years, he has been a strong proponent of the critical importance of credibility for individuals and organizations.
“Credibility is a leader’s currency…” he suggests, “With it, he or she is solvent; without it, he or she is bankrupt.”
In my work with leaders across a range of industries, I have found that there are three characteristics that typically add up to make a credible leader or organisation.
1. Authenticity - are you real?
Neuroscientist and author of The Trust Factor, Paul Zak, has spent years studying what builds rapport and intuitive trust between individuals and has come up with some remarkable yet simple findings.
According to Zak, the most important element of gaining or regaining trust is to dial up our ‘human-ness’. Appearing to be real, vulnerable and even fallible results in the release of the chemical Oxytocin in the brains of others. This is the neuro-mechanism humans have unconsciously used for centuries to determine who was safe enough to trust and work with.
This is an important revelation for every leader, professional or brand. For years we have worked hard to project sanitized and corporatized versions of ourselves. Spin doctors and corporate communications departments have carefully crafted messages to appear polished and faultless, failing to recognise that the quality that best cuts through is our fallibility.
Fallibility is a powerful and counterintuitive way of building trust, but it’s nothing without accountability. We intuitively trust leaders and organizations that are honest about their shortcomings, admit mistakes and take responsibility. Research indicates that taking responsibility is the fastest route to regaining trust. When our faith in a brand or individual has been betrayed, accountability is the first and most important step to take.
One of the most immediately disarming tools for signalling authenticity is self-deprecation. When a brand or individual is willing to not take themselves too seriously, we naturally warm to and identify with them.
A great example of these dynamics in action was the unconventional response by KFC in February 2018 after they ran out of chicken in 80% of stores across the UK. Rather than issuing a stuffy corporate apology or shuffling their leadership team in an act of contrition, KFC ran a full-page ad in the Sun and Metro newspapers featuring the picture of an empty bucket of chicken but the brands iconic 3 letters re-arranged on the bucket to spell FCK. Irreverent and unconventional by all means but also incredibly effective.
2. Veracity - are you honest/reliable?
According to legendary business leader Jack Welch, one of the most important elements for effective leaders today is ‘candor’ – a trait characterised by raw honesty. As Welch puts it, leaders with candor give their promises carefully and always keep them. They always tell the truth and expect others around them to do the same.
While Jack Welch is referring to the traits necessary to win the trust of those you are leading within an organization, the same principle stands true for building external trust too.
As children we learned that honesty is the best policy but as adults, we all too easily forget this. We may live in the age of alternate facts and fake news, but consumers still recognise half-truths when they see them. Truthfulness is the foundation of trust. Without honesty and sincerity, there is no hope of being seen as reliable, dependable and credible.
Simply being honest today is not enough to build the credibility necessary for trust. In the age of online influence, the marketplace is also looking for social proof of your reliability. In this regard, review sites and social media commentary is more important than ever. Research indicates that a full 82% of consumers will check reviews before placing their trust in or purchase with a business. They want to know if you are true to your word as evidenced by the experience of others.
Trust takes time to build and pursuing a path of honesty, reliability and integrity is often costly but always necessary. While your honesty will be tested and integrity challenged from time to time, remember the words of celebrated American author and columnist Ann Landers: “People of integrity expect to be believed, and when they’re not, they let time prove them right.”
3. Transparency - are your values visible?
May Miller-Dawkins of the Open Government Partnership suggests that building trust with today’s consumers must go beyond providing quality and consistent goods and services. According to Miller-Dawkins, what’s required today is radical transparency around how a company does what they do and what contribution they are making to society.
While operating with values and a sense of social responsibly is innately important, credibility in the eyes of today’s customer is only achieved when these things are clearly evident and verifiable. Brands like Konica Minolta, Patagonia, Nike and Levi Strauss have worked hard to earn the trust of customers by being transparent around their supply chain practices. Others such as BHP Billiton, Repsol, LUSH and Vodafone have openly disclosed their corporate tax policies, practices and payments. Then there are businesses like Salesforce, Buffer and PepsiCo that have made public commitments to achieving pay equity.
In order to gain or regain the trust of the marketplace today, your motivations need to be in the right place – you need to be integrous, reliable and dependable. Credibility, however, is only achieved when these motivations and the actions they result in are communicated clearly, authentically, openly and honestly.
And if you needed any further encouragement to pursue the path of honesty, consider the words of Mark Twain: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” How right he is.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
To see Michael speaking live, click here.
For more information on Michael's keynote speaking topics, michaelmcqueen.net/programs.
 Snow, S. 2017, ‘Why Major Institutions Lost Public Trust, And How They Can Get It Back Again’, The Content Strategist, 15 December.
 Ranadive, A. 2018, ‘How To Build Trust With Others’, Medium, 24 September.
 2018, ‘KFC's Apology For Running Out Of Chicken Is Pretty Cheeky’, BBC News, 23 February.
 Tracy, B. ‘How to Have Integrity in the Business & Why It's Important’, Brian Tracy Blog.
 Smith, A. 2016, ‘Online Reviews And Ratings’, Pew Research Center, 19 December.
 Miller-Dawkins, M. 2017, ‘The Business Of Trust: How Companies Can Build Credibility’, Open Government Partnership, 12 September.