CEO Credibility: Ethos in the 21st Century

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a ...

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aristotle’s Rhetoric from the 4th century B.C. has many lessons for CEOs today striving to do their best. In particular, his artistic proofs or means of persuasion – ethos, logos, and pathos – match up nicely with what I think are the three essential tools that CEOs need to effectively influence their organizations: The three C’s of credibility, competence and caring.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion. Ethos or the ethical appeal refers to convincing an audience of the person’s good character (credibility). Logos refers to logical proofs or the appeal to reason (competence). Pathos is the ability to appeal to an audience’s emotions (caring). While these are typically applied in tactical speaking situations, all three have relevance to the patterns of behavior a CEO exhibits over time to reveal his or her true nature and faculty for the job. I’ll cover credibility in this post and follow up with my thoughts on logos and pathos later.

In a Six Minutes blog post about how to apply Aristotle’s ethos, logos and pathos to public speaking, author Andrew Dlugan advises asking yourself these questions about your credibility, which apply directly to the CEO position:

  • Does the audience respect you?
  • Does the audience believe you are of good character?
  • Does the audience believe you are generally trustworthy?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you have no credibility. As a CEO your employees must believe that you are telling them what you believe to be the honest truth. Showing incompetence or callousness of course leads to a loss of influence (which I’ll cover in subsequent posts), but the biggest part of credibility is simple honesty: Tell the truth 100% of the time. Telling the truth 90% of the time is not much better than telling the truth 10% of the time.

CEO Scott Thompson addresses Yahoos at Sunnyvale HQ

CEO Scott Thompson addresses Yahoos at Sunnyvale HQ on January 5, 2012. (Photo credit: Yodel Anecdotal/Yahoo! Inc.)

Just look at the case of Scott Thompson, who was ousted from his job as CEO of Yahoo this year for lying on his resume. The sad part was how unnecessary the lie was: Yahoo didn’t hire him as CEO because he supposedly had a degree in Computer Science from Stonehill College. The truth matters.

In other words, it only takes a few instances (or one in Thompson’s case) of fibbing or hiding the truth to totally lose your credibility. And once you lose your credibility, it becomes almost impossible to lead effectively.

CEOs are untruthful for several reasons. When things are going well in a company, it is easy to give everyone the good news about growing revenue and profits. However, when things turn south, CEOs are often reticent to share the negatives with employees. They justify this to themselves by saying that morale could suffer or employees might not be able to handle the uncertainty that bad times bring. They begin to shade the truth and ignore any negative news.

As I described in my cheerleader CEO post, CEOs who are eternally optimistic suffer the same loss of credibility. For these people, the sky is always sunny and blue. The danger of this person is that they believe what they are saying is true. Instead of willfully shading the truth for a higher purpose, the cheerleader CEO refuses to recognize the objective reality of the situation.

Over time employees begin to understand that things are not well. When cutbacks and layoffs come after the CEO has claimed everything is okay, all credibility is lost. At that point regaining credibility is almost impossible and a change of leadership may be the only answer.

Of course, just like with a great speech, a CEO only inspires people if they believe in the message and the messenger, not just the delivery. Credibility or ethos is essential for influencing people, but if you aren’t perceived as competent and caring, you will not be an effective CEO. I’ll cover competence (logos) in my next post.

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