Who’s the Most Credible Leader?


National politics is not in my wheelhouse but business leadership is, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the 2016 US presidential candidates through that lens. If leadership credibility were the only criterion, whom would we choose?

There are lots of tools to assess leadership. I chose The Leadership Challenge, a framework introduced in 1983 by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. The purpose of their research has been to identify the core characteristics that predict exemplary leadership. They’ve surveyed tens of thousands of everyday people to determine what we most want and admire in our leaders. I chose their research as a foundation for looking at my question because 1) it’s accessible (this is a blog, not a PhD dissertation), and 2) it’s been statistically validated across a large and diverse population over more than 30 years. I think we could say that the population of the United States is pretty large and diverse.

Kouzes and Posner discovered that the top four characteristics we want in our leaders are consistent across time, cultures, and economic sectors. The results have remained constant through economic growth and recession, introduction of the Internet, globalization of business, and changes in the political environment. More than three decades after beginning their research, it turns out we still want our leaders to embody the same four characteristics in the same order of importance:

  1. Honest. Truthful, ethical, and principled. Worthy of trust. Behaves with solid integrity. High say-do ratio.
  2. Forward-looking. Has a vision for the future and knows where s/he and the organization are going. Connects his or her vision with the hopes and dreams of constituents.
  3. Inspiring. Enthusiastic, energetic and positive about the future. Uplifts people’s spirits and gives them hope.
  4. Competent. Able to get things done. Brings relevant experience and a track record of positive results.

Leaders who consistently embody these four qualities are seen by their constituents as credible. In the words of Kouzes and Posner, “Credibility is the foundation of leadership… If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.” (Fourth Edition, pp. 37-8.)

Now that we have a way of assessing credible leadership in the business world, how about politics? Can the qualities we want and admire in our political leaders be that different? Let’s find out.

At this writing, 2 democrats and 4 republicans remain in the US presidential race: Hillary Clinton (D), Ted Cruz (R), John Kasich (R), Marco Rubio (R), Bernie Sanders (D), and Donald Trump (R).

How would you rate each candidate with respect to the qualities of Honesty, Forward-looking, Inspiring, and Competent? Click here to cast your vote. It’s quick, your responses will be anonymous, and anyone in the world can participate. If I get enough responses, the consolidated results will be published in a future blog.

Whatever judgments we may have about the person who takes the presidential oath, I think most of us would agree that s/he is the most visible and powerful leader in the world today. This person has the power to influence not just your life and mine, but the lives of everyone on our planet. To whom will you give that power?

Laurel Callan