Lessons About Credibility

We seem to be going through one of those cycles when everyday we are reminded of people or organizations falling off the credibility wagon.  You likely recall the example of the local news station in San Francisco, who apparently got duped and reported joke-like names, when attempting to identify the pilots of the Asiana airliner that recently crashed upon landing there. Whether it was their own lack of quality, or a malicious prank somewhere in the verification process, their credibility took a hit. Either way, they were accountable for what they reported.

In late June there was a CNN story about a charity, Kid’s Wish, which is atop their worst charities list, providing about 3 cents per dollar to any kind of institution, and siphoning the rest off for executive salaries, and corporate solicitors. I suppose the founders might say it takes a lot of money to keep up their comfortable (and no doubt deserved) lifestyles.

And, major league baseball has certainly had a brand tarnishing summer with a handful of star players associated with the use of illegal performance enhancement drugs, or attempting to obstruct the investigation into them.

Sadly this list goes on.  In my local area, there are head shaking examples of individuals attempting to come across as solid citizens, only to be caught embezzling money from city or school coffers, or pursuing a relationship with their students for something more than being a new BFF.

In some recent work, I have asked several groups to identify credibility culprits as well as positive role models. I have noticed a couple of themes from their responses. First, the poor examples come forth with greater ease and in greater numbers. It seems people have to think a bit longer about positive role models. And second, with only a few exceptions, the poor examples are contemporary (Lance Armstrong or Anthony Weiner), while the solid role models are more dated (Mother Theresa).

If you are to be a leader, your credibility is non-negotiable. People will never follow you, if they do not believe in you. So be aware of some important lessons about this.

One, when people go down the slippery slope, those actions make the headlines. Everyday honorable actions of people seldom if ever get mentioned. That may not seem fair, but it is reality. Ethical behavior is the generally accepted expectation, which is why deviations become newsworthy.

Two, when a high-profile person screws up, everyone in the affected industry gets more scrutiny. After inaccurate reporting on several notionally important stories, from the number of fatalities at the Boston Marathon bombing to the Asiana pilots, the entire news media has earned a renew black eye. And after Lance Armstrong’s sorry example, who can believe any elite athlete, who denies using illegal drugs when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There are of course very honest and competent media organizations, as well as star athletes who play by the rules. There are also good politicians and rock solid charities. All now have to work even harder to convince others of their goodness, since guilt by association is a powerful force when it comes to credibility. Be mindful of what they means to you and the work that you do.

The final lesson is this. Earning and maintaining credibility is a life-long endeavor. You must be ever vigilant about how you behave. People are viewed as positive role models based on enduring and consistent demonstration of good deeds, but a single misstep can cause others to deeply reassess their earlier perceptions.. However, I have noticed that people are usually willing to forgive the individual or organization who genuinely fesses up after slipping up. However, forgiveness quickly turns to permanent repugnance toward those who are caught continuing to cheat or behave in disgusting ways, while publicly and vehemently swearing their innocence. And no abuser or our trust, no matter how rich, powerful or popular she, he or it may be, is immune to the consequences of being deceitful.

Finally remember this. You have no control over who might be watching you at any time. Any even when you think you are not being watched, you may immediately find yourself featured on YouTube, as someone was not only watching, but recording and posting. But here is what you have total control over. You can control what people see when they are watching – or recording. None of us will ever be perfect, but the more we are intentional about visibly modeling the principles and values we say we stand for, the more we will be perceived as believable and trustworthy.

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