Why CEOs Are Losing Credibility and How They Can Rebuild It

CEOs aren’t the most despised public figures in America today—this dubious honor seems to belong to the press and members of Congress—but their reputation has taken a hit in recent times.

CEO credibility is undermined every day by less catastrophic errors in action and judgment. It can result from a pattern of leadership mistakes that, over time, cause other senior executives and employees to lose faith in the person at the top.

“Credibility is hard to establish and easy to lose,” says leadership expert Karin Hurt. “The sad truth is, I’ve seen really good leaders lose the confidence and credibility of their teams by making well-intentioned and innocent mistakes.”

Hurt points out several credibility “derailers,” such as:

  • Using the wrong rhetoric for the situation. What leaders say matters, so the words they choose must precisely match the occasion. When they don’t, credibility suffers. Hurt describes working with a leader who told her organization, “We’re in the fight of our lives.” While acknowledging that the business situation was indeed serious, nevertheless, Hurt says, the language failed to inspire others. “The trouble was, many in her audience were literally in the fight of their lives in one way or another: the second bone marrow transplant, a dying sister, a son still in Iraq. I could see these dedicated leaders squirm when she said those words.”
  • Being needlessly ambiguous. Employees understand that not all corporate information can be freely shared with them. But a CEO who tries to spin the truth, rather than acknowledge that he or she can’t divulge specific strategy, only ends up confusing his audience and sowing the seeds of mistrust.

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