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Why believability is the new currency of great leadership

Richard Brett




That’s incredible!

Why believability is the new currency of great leadership

These are challenging times to be a business or political leader. We’re surrounded by fake news, inequality is on the rise, and the next corporate scandal or institutional failure is always just around the corner. Brands are under greater scrutiny than ever before.

This has created a “post-truth” culture of deep mistrust and scepticism, which has quickly become one of the defining issues of our time. As a result, it’s very difficult to be a brand, an organisation or a leader that Australians believe in.

As Australia’s largest public relations and communications agency, opr has become fascinated by this issue, and the dimensions of believability. We know that believing in people, brands and organisations makes it more likely that we’ll listen to them, work for them, defend them, buy from them or vote for them.

This idea holds incredible potential, so we partnered with Millward Brown to poll 1,400 Australians on perceptions of believability. Given this year’s federal election, we specifically wanted to understand the drivers of believability and whether it has a relationship with effective and inspiring leadership. What does it take to capture the hearts and minds of Australians?

The first annual Believability Index benchmarks 12 politicians, including all major party leaders, and four high-profile corporate leaders. In the research, leaders were rated on six dimensions of believability and their impact on leadership strength – relevance, integrity, shared values, affinity, commitment and follow through.

What emerges from this first piece of research is a fascinating set of insights into the strengths and weaknesses of our leaders. The analysis highlighted integrity as the most important element of believability, as well as the relative perceptions of male versus female leaders and corporate versus political leaders.

The key to believability     

Believability goes beyond credibility or trustworthiness to whether we’ll follow a leader. There’s an emotional response to being believable that overrides everything else, combining gut instinct with rational consideration. Tapping into this combination of what we know and what we feel has a powerful influence on perception and behaviour.  

Without getting too far into the detail, the research shows that it’s clearly no longer enough for leaders to focus on trust alone. To be effective, they must establish emotional connections based on shared values – they must be believed in.

This is a challenge but it’s also an incredible opportunity. To be successful, leaders need to build strong but simple narratives that connect to the real grassroots issues of everyday life. They must stand for something. The best business and political leaders will increasingly look to do just this because Australians clearly crave it.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set a high benchmark with her response to the Christchurch terror attack, resulting in substantial strength in her index score. More broadly, female political leaders rated higher than their male counterparts, and business leaders were rated as more believable than politicians.

Australian shareholders, employees and customers expect the same from business leaders as they want from politicians – shared values and a willingness to stand up for the issues they believe in. Business leaders must make meaningful connections and have an authentic voice without being tempted to hop on the latest bandwagon as it rolls past. We have no problem spotting leaders who use trending issues for self-promotion and will punish this behaviour when we see it.    

Although the Believability Index focuses on leadership this year, the research and methodology can also be used to inform the development of organisational narratives, purpose and thought leadership platforms.

We believe it will help build better brands and plan to focus next year’s iondex on this very topic. In the meantime, visit our website to access the full Believability Index: Leadership Edition findings.