What Kills Leader Credibility?

By | February 7, 2015

[February 07, 2015] A good friend of mine and I were new Lieutenants together in our first unit. We’d been trained at the world-renowned U.S. Army Infantry School and had learned about leadership but, of course, had little practical experience. Our first unit assignment was to be a hard lesson on leader credibility and how leaders can easily lose it.

Our company commander, a Captain in rank and far more experienced – Vietnam veteran, highly educated, good social connections – had been in command for nearly a year. This was good news for us as we viewed our assignment with anticipation at honing our undeveloped social and leader skills. The problem? This commander was known to his soldiers as a person who exaggerates; in a single word, he “lies.” As our executive officer told us upon our arrival, “don’t trust him.”

There are many ways that a leader can kill their own credibility and it is amazing at how easily that is done. The problem, of course, is that once a leader’s credibility is lost, it is difficult to regain. A loss of credibility means that the bond between leaders and followers has been damaged. When this occurs the leader can no longer lead. The most common way to lose credibility is by lying. The motivation to do so may be important to some but irrelevant to those who follow – the bond is broken.

“Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.” – ancient Roman legal maxim meaning “false in one thing, false in everything.”1

Credible leaders depend on trust and loyalty of those that follow them. Here are some of the ways for a leader to lose credibility. Any one of these will cause a leader to lose credibility; any combination is sure to destroy credibility quickly:

  • Lying (includes broken promises, exaggerating, misleading statements, fake apologies, etc.)
  • Technical ignorance (not knowing the procedural details on how work is done)
  • Operational incompetence (not knowing how the organization works)
  • Inexperience
  • Lack of focus and motivation
  • Lazy habits (a failure to lead by example)

When leaders lose credibility, bad things begin to happen. The organization begins to shift its focus from its core mission into other areas that will hobble its efficiency. Workers will start to lose faith in other leaders as well. Workers will begin to focus on what’s good for them, not necessarily what is good for the organization. Other important aspects begin to decline: respect for others, productivity, morale, loyalty, etc. None of this is good.

Leaders should be mindful of this a focus on maintaining their credibility. If mistakes are made by leaders, and they surely will be, immediate action should be taken to admit it and make meaningful, visible efforts to fix the problem.


[1] This indicates that a witness who willfully falsifies one matter is not credible on any matter.

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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

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