Today, the concepts of leadership and power have changed greatly because of technological innovations and new communication methods employed by modern organizations. The book ‘Credibility’ by J.M. Kouzes and B.Z. Posner proposes a new vision of leadership, the credibility of a leader, and his/her relations with subordinates. The work of Kouzes & Posner represents recent research of a new order of thinking and practice in management and leadership.
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In spite of great changes in organizational structure and employment relations, leadership remains a synthesis of arts and reflects individual experience, understanding, values, and capabilities, interacting with situations where, realistically, there is rarely an ‘ideal’ solution. Success as a leader, so often results from the unique originality of individual responses, rather than by following established precepts, without sufficient thought to context and circumstances.
The business world, as an integral part of a wider changing socio-economic, political, and scientific scene, is fast becoming a more challenging, exciting, and testing arena. It is, more than ever before, becoming a world of high uncertainty and little apparent security – but abundant opportunity. The new technological age puts new demands and expectations on leadership and organizational relations. Following Kouzes and Posner (2003): “strategies, tactics, skills, and practices are empty unless we understand the fundamental human aspirations that connect leaders and their constituents” (p. 1).
This does not mean that today’s leaders cannot learn from their predecessors or, for that matter, blithely ignore what is currently reckoned to be ‘best practice’. Clearly, the distilled wisdom and experience of generations of leaders – successful and otherwise – and the lessons to be drawn from those presently operating in conditions akin to our own, are invaluable sources of learning for anyone in a leadership role, in the dramatically changing and many-sided world of business.
Credibility is a complex notion that involves ethical and moral values, effective decision-making, and fair treatment of subordinates. It is possible to agree with Kouzes & Posner that the need for credibility in leadership, like change itself, remains, more than ever, one of the key constants in a world of dramatic and significant shifts. The globalization of business with consequent aspirations of ‘world class’ operations, strategic alliances, and coalitions, changing markets, and competitor initiatives, all demand managerial responses – and hence leadership – of the highest quality, in order for organizations to survive.
From my personal experience, I can say that in modern organizations leadership remains a fundamental activity that supports and directs employees and guides their performance. Credibility is compounded by many variables – which largely remain timeless and enduring: integrity, competence, courage, style, and an open mind. Thus, one source of distortion is personal distance. “This concept, developed by Lawrence Becker, refers to the degree of emotional/cognitive separation between one person and another” (Distortions in Moral Reasoning p. 6).
Kouzes and Posner underline that close and friendly relations, effective communication, and mutual trust are the main sources that help to overcome distortions. There is all the difference in the world between real toughness, based upon personal courage, a well-informed, intelligent reading of situations, and a high sense of moral responsibility for outcomes, on the one hand – and boorish aggression, on the other. “A firm credibility foundation can be established only when the leader truly understands and appreciates, even embraces, the aspirations of his employees” (Kouzes and Posner 2003, p. 91).
In leadership, more than in most fields of human endeavor, credibility means not simply ‘do others believe him or her’, but do they believe in the leader. It is possible to compare a credible and honest leader with the figure of Jesus and his relations with believers. “Mature love for God springs from a dynamic, unmanipulative friendship with God. Such friendship knows of no upper bound; at no moment may we declare that we have “arrived” (Faith and Business Ethics p. 13). Essentially, it is, therefore, the track record of leading, managing, decision-making, and results that determines the credibility of a leader. Above all, the really effective leaders will be those who seek to communicate face-to-face, at every practicable opportunity.
They see their role as going out to influence, encourage, stimulate and motivate by direct oral communication whenever they can. Kouzes and Posner (2003) are right stating that “a credibility check is rooted in the past. It has to do with a reputation” (p. 25). Relevance and appropriateness of role-model are also significant factors in leadership, and there are always likely to be personal preferences. Much of learning – particularly from role models – is essentially an imitative process, so that – currently relevant leader ‘icons’, with reputation, track record, and professional credibility are likely to be more appropriate sources of inspiration (Distortions in Moral Reasoning).
Kouzes and Posner emphasize the personal qualities of a leader but pay little attention to organizational goals and strategies developed by a leader. Despite enough tangible evidence of the need for more effective leadership and management skills and understanding, too many organizations continue to pay scant attention to the key issues of learning, developing, and training for their managers.
Undoubtedly, the extent of formal power, roles, and positions, as well as acuity and informed competence, of the warring factions, are crucial matters in any struggle for ascendancy. From my personal experience, I can say that values, ideologies, and territory all become issues to be challenged, defended, and fought over by the antagonists, who may well come to see such conflicts as fights for political and career survival (Kouzes and Posner 2003).
Many of their land-based counterparts, in offices, factories, and warehouses, take a similar view during, or following organizational change. Often, out of self-justification, or resentment at the loss or addition of responsibility, territorial ‘rights’ and roles, they tend to hark back to ‘what was’ – rather than focusing on the opportunities and challenges afforded them by change and, therefore, ‘what can be’.
It is important to note that ethical and moral standards are at the heart of effective leadership. The book underlines that “Honesty and competence are key personal characteristics. Top management actions set the company’s ethical tone “ (Kouzes and Posner 2003, p. 92).
It is evident that moral boundaries differentiate between ethical standpoints and thus are about standards of behavior, beliefs, and values frequently centered around what is considered to be ‘right’ or ‘good’, versus ‘bad’. As a consequence, the groups can become strongly divided within an organization over the believed integrity of a decision and resultant proposed course of action. Kouzes and Posner (2003) mention: “become fused [raising] the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both the leader and led, and thus it has a transformative effect on both” (p. 187).
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In decision making, especially, flow is defined as a balance between task demands and the leader’s personal capacity and competence is crucial both in terms of delivery and, therefore, the pay-off to the team and/or business, but also the leader’ credibility. Undoubtedly the challenges of the changes and paradigm shifts do require today’s leaders to develop new and different skills and to put more focused energy into learning for businesses to survive and succeed.
Rather, it is a matter of leaders engaging in a committed process of ‘learning for life’ for themselves and the people they manage. Kouzes and Posner (2003) are right that the most important for a leader being honest, not because you think you’re going to get caught if you’re not.” Honesty is in fact primarily a moral choice” (p. 108). Greater awareness, strategic competence, and informed confidence continue to be the crucial development needs of leaders, in most organizations. Developing as a person, a professional, and as a leader is a lifelong process, prompted by fortuitous thought, serendipity, or because someone else withdraws from a training program, at the eleventh hour and a late substitute is needed to avoid forfeiture of the course fees.
In sum, credibility and ethical decision-making is the core activity in leadership and management. In the role of manager, we operate somewhere between absolute autonomy and complete helplessness. As a decision-maker, then, the leader’s role is to create relevant order, coherence, and committed synergy, through others, over events frequently outside his or her direct control and in operating environments where little certainty exists.
The traditional leader’s concerns with power, rank, and status – and all that goes with positional authority – are valued less and less and, consequently, receive scant respect from people who expect higher levels of egalitarianism, professional autonomy, and empowerment from their managers. Options and alternatives, reflecting resourcefulness and adaptability – especially in conditions of uncertainty and change – are the lifeblood of effective decision-making.
In traditional ‘top-down’ approaches to management, option generation has tended to be seen largely as the prerogative of leaders, managers, and ‘bosses’ generally. In new paradigm thinking, option generation knows no such exclusivity, and the production and exploration of innovative, viable alternative goals, decisions, strategies, and actions are seen as the contribution of team members as well as their leaders.
Distortions in Moral Reasoning and Ethical Decision-Making. Chapter 2.
Faith and Business Ethics. Chapter 4.
Kouzes, J.M., Posner, B.Z. (2003). Credibility. Jossey-Bass; Rev Sub edition.