Great Leadership: Connection or Credibility?

[We have all worked with leaders that are on different parts of the “greatness scale.” Some landed on the high side and inspired us to work better, harder and faster. Those on the low side had us brushing up our resume. What was it that made the great leaders so great and the others not-so-great?

Recently, I sat in the back of the room during the national meeting of one of our new clients, while the CEO delivered the opening keynote. He kicked off the meeting by welcoming everyone and laying out the next three days. He then immediately segued over and navigated smoothly through the company’s results, calling out several people in the audience who had contributed to the success of the company. He moved from topic to topic with relative ease, but something was missing. As I looked around the room, I noticed that a large majority of the 500+ people were essentially tuned out. Some were sneaking peeks at their phones while others were literally sneaking in a nap.  Nothing the CEO said was off point. He was very commanding, articulate and statesman-like. Toward the end, he gave the “call to arms” and attempted to motivate the crowd with a rousing video of customer testimonials, followed by a few last comments on how they need to be even better in the coming year. Everyone cheered and the next presenter took the stage.

Juxtapose that with the CEO of a different client of ours. This client has been with us for two years. He took the stage at his national meeting with a slightly different approach. He launched into an incredible story about his father. He showed pictures of he and his dad when he was young and how his dad would take him along to work and teach him about problem-solving and how to treat others. He told very specific stories with visual examples of how his dad literally gave the coat off his back to someone on the street and how his dad was known all over town because of the goofy hat he always wore.  

He then shifted and told the story of his father’s funeral this past summer. You could see people in the audience begin to shift in their seats. Every eye was glued on the stage. He went on to tell how he and his siblings were tasked with organizing the memorial service for their father and how the family had asked him to give the final tribute to their father. Everyone always said he looked the most like their dad. This CEO went on to tell the story of the funeral and how he tried to do his father justice with everything he had learned from him. At the end of the story, the CEO pulled out his father’s old coat and hat from under the podium and put them on. He then looked over the audience and said, “We run a company that makes a difference. It makes a difference in the lives of our customers and it makes a difference in the lives of all of our families. This company embodies the characteristics of my father. We solve problems. We work hard. We care deeply for our clients and for each other. At the end of the day, to each and every one of us in this room, our family means more to us than anything. I consider each one of you my family and I’m honored to be your CEO.”

After the five-minute standing ovation, guess what he did? He navigated smoothly over the numbers and results, called out several people who had made significant contributions and then told them where the results were lacking, and what they were going to do to turn those things around. What he did was the exact same thing as the first CEO, but the response to his “call to arms” was significantly different. He had the entire room ready to run through a wall for him.

Connection vs. Credibility

Most leaders have bought into the myth that credibility trumps all. They’ve gotten into the same routine day after day of keeping their chin held high and making sure everyone is accountable to results. I’m certainly not suggesting those are negative leadership traits. What I am suggesting is that if results are what you’re looking for as a leader, you must understand that when you combine the power of connection with your credibility, magic happens. What’s really satisfying for me is that the second CEO I mentioned earlier wasn’t previously known as a “connector” in his organization. He was more reserved and a bit intimidating. He was known as a very intellectual guy who could unintentionally intimidate his team just by talking. After being part of the “Braintrust family” for a couple of years, he absolutely understood his “connection deficit” and took intentional steps to change.

Every one of you out there has a LEADERSHIP WHY. When you can dig deep and craft it into a compelling narrative, people respond differently to you. They feel differently about you than they used to. When we ask employees of clients what difference they’ve seen in their leader, we frequently get, “I’m not sure what it is, but it just seems like he gets it now.”

People follow people they trust. They trust people they like and connect with. Their respect will become even greater in the presence of connection. They’ve likely always found you credible, but when they know that you know your leadership why and have taken the time to communicate it to them, everything changes. 

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