What healthcare leaders can learn from Brian Williams' mistake

Credibility is a valuable asset anyone in a position of power should protect. As a leader, once your credibility is called into question, it is a hard-fought battle to regain it, if you ever do.

The case of Brian Williams

Brian Williams provides an example of how valuable credibility is. As the anchor for NBC Nightly News, Mr. Williams was a highly respected journalist. Over the years, he earned the trust of his viewers by delivering truthful broadcasts. However, recent happenings evidence just how delicate credibility is and just how fast it can be destroyed.

Mr. Williams had told a story on many occasions about his experience in wartime Iraq that involved a U.S. military helicopter he was riding in coming under fire and being forced to land. As it turns out, that story was nothing but a tall tale.

Although it took him over a decade to come clean, Mr. Williams did issue an on-air apology for telling the untruthful story. However, the one instance of misleading the public was enough to cause his credibility to be scrutinized, and as of now, it is unclear if he will be able to regain the trust of his viewers, who have publicly attacked his credibility on Twitter and other social media outlets. Even those in his profession have spoken out on the issue. Howard Kurtz, a Fox News analyst, said, "The admission raises serious questions about [Mr. Williams'] credibility in a business that values that quality above all else."

Lessons for healthcare executives

Mr. Williams is a person of power in an industry far different than healthcare. However, just like he needs viewers to believe in him, executives in the healthcare industry need people, including their staff, to believe in them. Credibility is fragile, and just like Mr. Williams, healthcare leaders can have theirs called into question.

"Too often executives take for granted the trust they generate," wrote John Baldoni, an internationally recognized leadership consultant, in a recent Forbes article. "In reality what they think is trust, is not trust at all. It's merely compliance. People seldom seek to go crossways with their bosses; they go with the flow until that flow threatens to drown them. No trust there."

Without trust there is no credibility and without credibility how can healthcare leaders be successful? If they aren't trusted by their employees how can they achieve their organizational goals? 

Just like Mr. Williams, healthcare executives are in the public eye, which causes their actions and statements to be looked at under a harsher light than those of the everyday person. That said, even under the microscope, it is possible to gain and maintain trust — but doing so takes time and commitment.

"By setting the right example" and being accountable for "maintaining that example," Mr. Baldoni says trust can be achieved. "It [trust] is deepened by supporting the team, sharing credit with them and even sacrificing for their welfare."

I'm sure each of you can think of a healthcare leader that exemplifies those traits. Who is a team player, who gives credit when credit is due and who genuinely, deeply cares about the welfare of their organization and their employees. However, you might also be able to think of a healthcare leader whose credibility has been called into question and the negative effect that had on their professional life, the success of their organization or their relationship with staff and colleagues.

It is important for leaders in the healthcare industry to maintain the trust that is given to them because, even with a dedicated commitment to an organization, everyone makes mistakes. It's just the severity of them that varies. When leaders do make a misstep, that is when they have to "call upon the reservoir of trust to begin to earn back" what they have lost, writes Mr. Baldoni.  

Regaining trust when there was little there to begin with is an almost impossible task. However, by taking the necessary steps to right the wrong — beginning with an apology followed by actions that show the wrongdoer is seeking to undo the mistake — they can begin to make the long journey back.

Like Mr. Baldoni writes, "Trust is bankable but when credibility is withdrawn you will find nothing inside." 

Mr. Williams had many people who believed in his character and trusted him immensely, and some of them, including a number of his fellow anchors, provided "heaping praise on his character" even after news broke of his misstep, according to a USA Today report. However, Mr. Williams' credibility seems to be dwindling by the day as questions have now been raised about his experiences covering Hurricane Katrina and while working in the Middle East. NBC News has even suspended him for six months without pay.

If healthcare executives can take one thing away from Mr. Williams' experiences, it should be that credibility is everything and the road to success is built on earning and maintaining the trust of your employees, your colleagues and your organization.

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