The panel discussion was on Meet the Press. They were offering opinions on the economic plan being lead by President Obama. A key element of their conversation revolved around many who seem to distrust the plan’s reliability and long term effectiveness. The underlying question was, “How can a President be so popular, yet have such a challenging time getting larger buy-in on his economic plan?”
One of the panelists, Mort Zuckerman the current Editor-in-Chief of U.S. News and World Report, made the following statement: “He [President Obama] has popularity without credibility” (NBC Meet the Press, 4.8.09). I was intrigued by this statement. The interest was not in how it may or may not apply to the President, but how it might apply to leadership in general.
It seems that pursuing popularity is a common temptation of all leaders. Leaders want to be liked. And there is an element of popularity demanded by all leadership situations. After all, those who are followed must be liked on some level by those who choose to follow. Yet, when the rubber meets the road, popularity can carry a leader only so far. Sooner or later they have to show themselves credible.
Credibility is a result of both trustworthiness and expertise. A leader who earns trust through their reliability and develops a level of expertise through effectiveness will see their credibility increase. It would seem that a credible leader can overcome a run of unpopularity, but a popular leader may not weather a storm of non-credibility.
The challenge is that many leaders tend to defer to popularity. They prefer the applause of people at the expense of making difficult leadership choices. They refuse to pursue credibility in order to appease those who could make their lives miserable. They want calm instead of confrontation, they want appreciation at the expense of ability and they want that pat on the back instead of providing hard solutions.
The two are not mutually exclusive. But if one must be chosen, choose credibility! A credible leader will gain popularity over time, but a popular leader who does not display credibility will soon lose any popularity gained. When both are in play the result is greater effectiveness.
It must also be noted that credibility is not a popularity contest. Credibility is earned through proven effectiveness not polling. A credible leader has shown their mettle in difficult situations. They have made more correct decisions than wrong. They have shown insight, intuition and innovation. They have credibility due to their competencies. And competency is not always greeted by thunderous applause.
Popularity – Credibility = Shallow leadership
Credibility – Popularity = Slowed progress
Credibility + Popularity = Increased effectiveness
What leadership pursuit do you choose: Popularity or credibility? The choice you make will determine the character you reveal.