Election Day is almost here, and many Americans find themselves facing a last-minute choice. While some people are passionate “single issue” voters – making their decision solely on where a candidate stands on, say, taxes or healthcare – most of us don’t have it so easy. We must choose a candidate whose stance we like on some issues, but not on others. It’s simply not possible for any thoughtful person (read: non-rabid-partisan) to agree with Barack Obama or John McCain on everything. As the race comes down to the wire, there must be some hard-to-define something that sways us one way or the other. And that something, says Sandy Allgeier, is personal credibility.

“Basically, it all comes down to trust and believability,” says Allgeier, author of The Personal Credibility Factor: How to Get It, Keep It, and Get It Back (If You’ve Lost It) (FT Press, February 2009, ISBN-10: 0-1320827-9-9, ISBN-13: 978-0-1320827-9-2, $18.99). “Is the candidate telling the truth? Will he keep his promises? Does he really care about the American people or is he motivated solely by self-interest and the desire for power? We want to be able to trust our president, and if we can’t trust a candidate, we won’t vote for him. It’s that simple.”

Of course, we all know that candidates’ words are often penned by speechwriters and that practically their every move is choreographed by their campaign team. Still, says Allgeier, actions tell us a lot. And what a candidate does throughout his political career – and what he says during those rare unscripted moments in the campaign – shines a relentless spotlight on the presence or absence of credibility.

“Personal credibility is hard to fake,” says Allgeier. “You can’t ‘act’ credible; you either are or you aren’t. And if I could have a personal audience with Senators Obama and McCain, I’d give them some advice on cultivating this all-important quality.”

Allgeier says she would share three key “credibility secrets” with the presidential candidates:

Secret No. 1:  We’re always probing for your true motivation.

Message to Senators Obama and McCain: People with strong personal credibility are driven by deeper purposes than personal status and position. Sure, you may achieve status and position during your life, but that comes as the result of your efforts and not because they were your initial goals. As president, we want you to be more concerned with doing the right thing, getting the job done, and serving than with accumulating the prestige and power that comes with the office. And we’re always looking for proof of that quality.

“Of course, we all know that politicians and government leaders both seek and possess position and status,” says Allgeier. “But the real issue is this: What has caused and what currently motivates the candidate’s behavior? Is it power and position – or is there an indication of the desire to first work and serve?”

Determining this is simple, says Allgeier. Look at the candidate’s past actions. What does the record show about his willingness to serve the needs of others? Seek out information on how each has sacrificed and worked to achieve a greater good for citizens. Find out where he or she stands on rolling up the sleeves and doing the hard work needed to make something difficult yet worthwhile happen. The more evidence of this you have, the more you can trust that individual’s motives. 

Secret No. 2:  We’re looking and listening for authenticity.

Message to Senators Obama and McCain: Authenticity is about being the person you are, no matter what pressure you’re feeling or where it comes from. When you have strong personal credibility, you are aware of your own faults and issues, but don’t build your life around trying to hide or shore up your own insecurities. You are approachable, you are truthful, you have a “what you see is what you get” attitude. You don’t see life as a performance. You are real. And we want a president who is real and authentic, not one who is just a really great actor.

“This is another ‘secret’ that requires research,” says Allgeier. “We’ve become accustomed to a visually stimulating and televised world of sound bites. We would rather just look at candidates, have a ‘gut’ reaction to what we see, do little to assess that candidate, and then use our own ‘gut’ reaction to form an opinion. But to truly determine the candidate’s authenticity, we must look a little deeper.”

A few suggestions:

  • Look for indications of humility. Does the candidate admit past mistakes? Can he listen to criticism, take ownership for errors, explain his thinking at that time, and tell us what he would do differently now? 

  • Listen without the benefit of watching. Shut your eyes. Go to another room and listen to what is being said. Don’t allow your impressions to be overly impacted by the visual image. You will learn more, and your mind and automatic response system will not be distracted by body language signals. Body language is a powerful persuader in human beings. If we eliminate the impact of what we see, we may remain more open to hearing the real message. There was a time when we relied only on what we read and heard. We probably made more thoughtful decisions as a result.

  • Look for real, raw, and true emotion in the candidate’s responses to questions on a topic. Of course, not all topics will generate emotional responses. But if all we ever see is polished prose, we never know who we are really seeing. The person who is willing and able to put himself out there for everyone to see demonstrates at least the ability to be authentic. However, the emotion that we see must match up with the candidate’s message that the candidate has been giving. We immediately distrust candidates who suddenly veer away from past behaviors in an emotional display that seems to be contrived or radically different from what we’ve seen previously.

Secret No. 3: You must be willing to consider other points of view.

Message to Senators Obama and McCain: We do want to know who our presidential candidates are, what they believe, and what they will stand for. But we also know we’ll be better served by a leader who can put his decision making on hold for a short period while he honestly considers the thoughts and opinions of others. This requires solid listening skills. It means you must be a leader who both seeks out the thoughts and ideas of others, and creates an environment where others feel totally confident in expressing them, even when there is expected disagreement. And this is a tough thing to do, especially when the pressure is high.

How do we know if candidates understand and apply this third secret? We must look for evidence of it in their actions and prior experience. Who has listened to the opposing side in an argument? Who have they chosen to surround themselves with? Is it all “yes” people, or is it people with differing views and thoughts? 

Look at town hall meeting formats, suggests Allgeier. How much time do the candidates spend making sure they understand the issue or question before responding to it? How good are they at paraphrasing questions back to the press or to citizens to ensure that they understand correctly and that they are giving themselves adequate time to think?

“Please understand: This is not the same as equivocation or ‘waffling,’” asserts Allgeier. “The truly credible candidate will always find his or her position on an issue, stand for that issue, and defend it. Suspending judgment is about the process of coming to the decision on a given position—and remaining open to listening to and understanding differing beliefs, even when those beliefs are not held by the candidate in the end.”

In the end, learning the subtle language of personal credibility will help us in many ways, says Allgeier. We can use this knowledge to choose not only our next president, but all of our political leaders. And even more important, we can use the political process as a “learning lab” of sorts through which to examine and strengthen our own credibility.

“Yes, it’s important to elect credible leaders, but it’s just as important to be credible citizens,” she says. “Personal credibility is the secret to career success, strong professional and interpersonal relationships, and a happy life. An America filled with authentic, confident, trustworthy people who also trust each other can be the healthiest, most productive nation on earth – no matter who is in the White House.”

About the author:
Sandy Allgeier is a consultant, trainer and facilitator who assists organizations in maximizing their human potential. Prior to beginning her consulting business in early 2000, Sandy had over 25 years of experience as a human resources professional. Sandy’s corporate human resources management experience includes having served as senior vice president of human resources for Atria Assisted Living, with 7,000 employees located in 26 states, as well as serving as director of human resources for Providian Corporation, a Fortune 500 Financial Services company. Prior to this, Sandy was director of field human resources for KFC Corporation. She is experienced in directing all phases of human resources management, including recruiting and selection, compensation and benefits, employee relations, and training and development.   

Sandy has solid experience as a speaker, workshop leader and facilitator, and is known for engaging her audiences with a high degree of participation. Specifically, she has conducted hundreds of workshops/training programs for clients. Sandy also assists organizations by providing professional and executive coaching, utilizing a variety of tools including 360 feedback systems. Sandy is a member of the National Speakers Association, and has been recently published as a contributing author with Steven Covey, Dennis Waitley and Marjorie Blanchard in a book titled Conversations on Success. Her book The Personal Credibility Factor, published by a division of Prentice Hall Publishing, is being released in early 2009.

Sandy is recognized as a leader within her profession, and was presented the 1999 Award for Professional Excellence by the Louisville, Kentucky, chapter of the Society for Human Resources Management.  She has been selected as a national faculty member and facilitator for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), where she helps develop and educate HR practitioners across the United States.  Her major focus today is on assisting organizations with developing their current and future leaders.

About the book:
The Personal Credibility Factor: How to Get It, Keep It, and Get It Back (If You’ve Lost It) (FT Press, February 2009, ISBN-10: 0-1320827-9-9, ISBN-13: 978-0-1320827-9-2, $18.99) will be available at bookstores nationwide and from all major online booksellers.

For more information, visit personalcredibility.com and ftpress.com.