A crucial component of successful leadership is that followers believe in the leader and what the leader is about.
Authority gives a boss the power to direct the actions of others, but it is a belief system that gives a leader the power to inspire the actions of others. Belief in a leader happens when followers believe the leader can be trusted, is intent on doing the right thing and will always take the best interests of the followers into account. When followers believe in the leader it becomes the oxygen of leadership and without it, leadership is suffocated. Belief in a leader becomes a license to lead and it coalesces individuals into a coordinated effort to support the leader’s goals.
Case in point. Do you remember the two campaign mantras of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign? Change You Can Believe In and Yes We Can. It can be argued that these were nothing more than empty slogans, but they did touch a nerve that is at the very core of leadership. The reality is that humans universally not only want to believe in something or someone, they need to. Anyone can exist in life, but it is a belief in something bigger that gives life value and meaning. Earning the deep belief of followers is what gives a leader the power to motivate people to do what others only dream of doing or think not possible. And in this instance, the belief created was so powerful it propelled a virtually unknown young leader to the very pinnacle of power.
Another good illustration of the power inherent in believing is religion. Believing is essential to any religion. It is not possible to quantifiably prove the existence of God, so one must have faith and believe. Yet, it is believing in the very presence of God that allows followers to faithfully accept and abide by religious teachings that may in a world of logic seem improbable. That kind of belief is encapsulated nicely in the Bible: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Creating this same sense of believing is just as important to the effectiveness of secular leadership. It is the responsibility of a leader to give followers a reason to follow. A leader gives others a reason to follow when they build a deep, abiding belief among followers that they will always act in the ultimate best interests of the followers. When followers believe in a leader, they believe they can do anything and they will make the effort to do so.
Elections are another wonderful example of how the power of believing can override almost any other factor of leadership. Campaigns are often a cacophony of confusion, wild promises and vicious attacks that make it difficult to decide and cast a rational vote. In the end, more often than not, the vote for a leader comes down to who the voter believes in the most. In 2012 all logic suggested that Mitt Romney would defeat Barack Obama. The economy was still sputtering, terrorism was a continuing and spreading threat, foreign policy was constricted and confusing and, maybe most important of all, Obama’s promise of “change you can believe in” had failed to materialize. So what happened? Post-election analysis revealed that the undecided voter – those that swung the election for Obama – simply did not believe in Romney. Even though Obama had failed to deliver on promises made in 2008, the majority of voters decided they could still believe in him more than they could in Romney.
Becoming The Leader They Can Believe In
Becoming a leader who others will believe in cannot be mandated. It must be cultivated and earned based on attitudes and actions that are established over time, not overnight. Remember, the objective is to give the followers a reason to believe.
If you seek to be a leader who followers will believe in, here are a few things (not necessarily in order of priority) to incorporate into your approach to leadership:
- Demonstrate that you believe in the abilities and talent of the followers, even more than you want them to believe in you.
- Be consistent in how you lead. Be the same leader tomorrow as you are today and were yesterday.
- Create, communicate and adhere to a clearly articulated vision of what you seek to accomplish.
- Align followers in parallel with your interests and objectives by allowing them to share in the rewards of success.
- Empower your followers to participate in the process in a way that enables them to believe that their efforts can make a difference.
- Establish standards of performance and accountability for you and the followers and enforce them consistently and fairly.
- Always search out the right thing to do and always do it in the best interests of those who follow.
- Unfailingly communicate with followers as you would wish to be communicated with as a follower.
- Always say what you mean and mean what you say. Followers will never believe in what or who they can’t trust to be honest and consistent.
- As a leader, never promise followers more than you can deliver and always deliver more than you promise. (One of the reasons so few believe in politicians.)
- Passionately and unfailingly believe in yourself and what you are about. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?
It’s More Like A Religion
One of the highest compliments a leader can receive is when others refer to the culture created by the leader as “more like a religion.” Then there is the more (maybe jealous) pejorative comment offered by some that the followers “drank the Kool-Aid” served up by the leader. Be that as it may, such comments are to be sought out by a leader, because it means that followers are true believers and that is what real leadership is about.