Credibility hinges on perceptions of competence and trustworthiness.

Leadership is the relationship between people who aspire to lead and those who choose whether or not to follow.1 And it hinges on the leader’s credibility, which is difficult to build and easy to lose. In recent years, numerous corporate executives — including the CEOs of BP, Wells Fargo, and Volkswagen — have learned that tough lesson through high-profile scandals that swiftly damaged their reputations.2

But what’s at the heart of credibility? Two critical elements: perceived competence (people’s faith in the leader’s knowledge, skills, and ability to do the job) and trustworthiness (their belief in his or her values and dependability).3 Such views are formed through direct and indirect observation of the leader’s work and performance. And these perceptions are extremely important in a digital age, when vast amounts of information about people can be captured and scrutinized through technologies like smart sensors and artificial intelligence systems. Employees also seek assurance that those who are managing them and assessing their performance are competent and trustworthy.

Researchers have identified several broadly defined behaviors that influence whether leaders are perceived that way.4 These behaviors include knowing oneself, appreciating one’s constituents, affirming shared values, developing new capabilities, serving a purpose, and sustaining hope. However, not much has been written about concrete actions that enhance or harm a leader’s credibility. Indeed, it’s widely assumed that behaviors that don’t increase credibility naturally decrease it. Research has begun to challenge this assumption,5 but we had many unanswered questions, so we set out to learn more.

In several field studies, we explored the specific behaviors that affect how people assess their leaders’ competence and trustworthiness and, in turn, their credibility. From this work (see “About the Research”), we have gleaned the following insights into what causes leaders to gain or lose credibility with their employees and what leaders who have lost credibility can do to regain it.

How Leaders Build Credibility

Based on input from employees we surveyed from a range of organizations, we found that leaders are perceived as competent when they place an emphasis on the future, on organizational outcomes, and on employees, as well as when they take action and launch initiatives, communicate effectively, and gain knowledge and experiences.


1. J.M. Kouzes and B.Z. Posner, “Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It” (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2011); and J.M. Kouzes and B.Z. Posner, “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations,” 6th ed. (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2017).

2. Political leaders lose their credibility as well, and some (such as Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and South Korean president Park Geun-hye) have been removed from office and even imprisoned.

3. See T.-Y. Kim, T.S. Bateman, B. Gilbreath, and L.M. Andersson, “Top Management Credibility and Employee Cynicism: A Comprehensive Model,” Human Relations 62, no. 1 (August 2009): 1435-1458; and P.H. Kim, K. Dirks, C.D. Cooper, and D.L. Ferrin, “When More Blame Is Better Than Less: The Implications of Internal Versus External Attributions for the Repair of Trust After a Competence- Versus Integrity-Based Trust Violation,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 99, no. 1 (2006): 49-65.

4. J.M. Kouzes and B.Z. Posner, “Leading in Cynical Times,” Journal of Management Inquiry 14, no. 4 (2005): 357-364; D.G. Leathers, “Successful Nonverbal Communication: Principles and Applications” (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1992); R.C. Mayer, J.H. Davis, and F.D. Schoorman, “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995): 709-734; and T.L. Simons, “Behavioral Integrity: The Perceived Alignment Between Managers’ Words and Deeds as a Research Focus,” Organization Science 13, no. 1 (2002): 18-35.

5. K.T. Dirks, “Three Fundamental Questions Regarding Trust in Leaders,” in “Handbook of Trust Research,” ed. R. Bachmann and A. Zaheer (Cheltenham, United Kingdom: Edward Elgar, 2006), 15-28; and P.H. Kim, D.L. Ferrin, C.D. Cooper, and K.T. Dirks, “Removing the Shadow of Suspicion: The Effects of Apology Versus Denial for Repairing Competence- Versus Integrity-Based Trust Violations,” Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 1 (2004): 104-118.

6. B.M. Bass, “Bass & Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications,” 3rd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1990).

7. Kouzes and Pozner, “Credibility: How Leaders Gain.”

8.Patagonia’s Mission Statement,” n.d.

9. Reuters, “Buffett Says Wells Fargo Was ‘Slow to Fix’ Sales Scandal,” May 6, 2017.

10.BP Boss Tony Hayward’s Gaffes,” June 20, 2010.

11. T.Y. Kim et al., “Top Management Credibility”; and P.H. Kim et al., “Removing the Shadow of Suspicion.”

12. K.T. Dirks, “Three Fundamental Questions”; and P.H. Kim et al., “Removing the Shadow of Suspicion.”

13. P.H. Kim et al., “When More Blame Is Better Than Less.”

5 Comments On: Why People Believe in Their Leaders — or Not

  • John Eldred | August 30, 2018

    Jim Kouzes work on credibitly is worth noting here

  • John Eldred | August 30, 2018

    that was crediibility////

  • siswanto.gatot549 | September 5, 2018

    true leader is who shows the best in technical and ethical practices

  • Hadi Taheri | September 9, 2018

    Wealth or science? which one is better?
    Better management or leadership?
    Better action or reaction?

    Why do people believe in their leaders – or not.
    Because at different times, these questions have different answers.
    And the leader of experience and knowledge is capable and can choose the right option.
    Society needs to grow and survive.This is an exciting opportunity to develop new organizational capabilities people. Identifying and evaluating these opportunities in the organization is the responsibility of the financial system managers.
    Next The main task of the leader is to prioritize organizational outcomes and advise these opportunities to people.

  • Sashank Garikapati | October 2, 2018

    Good read; explains how leadership commands accountability and responsibility.

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