Part 2 Ethos: Executive Credibility

Ethos: Executive Credibility


“Our lives would be easier if speakers wore a badge carrying a rating that allowed us to evaluate their character intersubjectively. With such information, the relative reliability of all communication would be clear; we would know which candidate’s speech to believe, which witness’ testimony to accept, even which religious leader’s exhortation to obey”.2 But, fortunately or unfortunately, for us, this is not the case.

When a speech is ‘logos’ based, and our claims rest on accepted grounds, our personal involvement is not as important as when the information is uncertain or even disputed. We are asking, in this case, our audience to make a judgement on undisputed information alone and our ‘credibility’ plays a much-diminished role. However, when the information is disputed, which is more often the case, the issues of personal relationships, character, and the perception of being well informed have a role to play in our audience’s acceptance of our message. Before going on to discuss character as a persuasive proof, you may ask, what about attitudes (creating good will) and style? Surely these form part of our quest to create credibility? Yes they do, but I have purposely included them in a separate paper on ‘Non-verbal Communication’.

According to accepted wisdom, people who are honest, steady, and reliable have the edge in the persuasive process. The feelings your audience has about your character are connected directly with your ‘habitus’, as it puts on display a whole range of our characteristics that have been formed over the years. Where doubt, dispute or uncertainty exists, character, as a holistic concept becomes, according to Aristotle in his ‘Rhetoric’, the most important means of persuasion. Most people have little trouble in recognising such virtues as justice, courage, and temperance or the lack of them in their bosses and colleagues. They may not vocalise it, but they recognise it, which affects their level of trust. The Greeks termed this personal credibility as ‘ethos’.

Martin Heidegger, an influential German philosopher, defined ‘Ethos as ‘abode or ‘dwelling place’. This, according to David Cunningham3 “signifies a particular approach to living, an entire range of actions and passions”. This ‘abode’, this wholeness of character is what our audience feels about us. This is the feeling they gradually develop about us. If this feeling is positive, our audiences may be influenced to believe us. We will have given them a reason to have confidence in us.

However, a note of caution must be added here.  Character by itself is not always successful in getting our audience to accept every message. Even Aristotle warns us in his ‘Rhetoric’ against relying on character alone at times as the main means of persuasion (see Rh. 1367a) especially when there is a high degree of certainty.

We could argue that a modern audience who strive for objectivity and rationality should not take the character of a speaker into consideration at all. Surely it is enough for a speaker to be objective and neutral and fairly lay out the arguments and let the audience judge them on their own merits?  Well, in matters of ‘conventional’ knowledge, the answer is most likely a yes. This is because the audience is not making a judgement on disputed knowledge. They are making a conscious or unconscious judgement on information or norms that they consider as certain or at least conventionally acceptable. This would be the case with accountancy, for example, where the rules and practices have been established. But where there is dispute and uncertainty and information is not accepted as ‘conventional’, ‘Ethos’ certainly has a role to play. In many cases the acceptance of the authority of an argument is related directly to the perception an audience has of the speaker’s character. The audience will make a judgement, and this fits with Aristotle’s idea that judgement about character is one of the most powerful means of persuasion.

An orator, according to Aristotle, persuades by moral character when his speech is delivered in such a manner as to render him worthy of confidence; for we trust such persons to a greater degree, and more readily. This is generally true for all types of argument, and absolutely true when there is uncertainty and room for doubt. (Rh.1356a).4

John Henry Newman, a onetime lecturer of rhetoric atOxfordUniversity, wrote in his ‘Grammar of Assent’

“We judge for ourselves, by our own lights, and on our own principles; and our own criterion of truth is not so much the manipulation of propositions, as the intellectual and moral character of the person maintaining them, and the ultimate silent effect of his arguments or conclusions upon our minds.”5

         A speaker cannot use ‘ethos’ as a means of persuasion if the audience does not know about the speaker’s expertise, does not have a personal relationship with him, does not know anything of his moral character, and is not known as a leader. What must we do in these circumstances? We must establish a common bond with our audience through the establishment of ‘common ground’.

Establishing Common Ground

Of course, if the subject matter is under dispute and therefore uncertain, the establishment of common ground will be made much more difficult. Our audience must have a reason to believe us. We must show them that we can all benefit from the proposal. If we cannot do this, then the prospect of persuasion is, indeed, diminished.

As persuasion is not something we do to others but rather something we do with them, the creation of common ground is important. We don’t set out to persuade someone to accept a proposal that will bring them no benefit at all (accepting that the word benefit can be any combination of intrinsic, extrinsic or transcendent advantage). If we do, we will be dragged into the world of manipulation or propaganda. It is similar to a contract in Common Law; there must be something for both sides, although not in proportion. Nor should we set out to do the impossible and to persuade them to accept something that brings them no benefit, as, sooner or later, if we are successful, this will rebound on us. We should adjust our own proposal and work into a win-win situation.

But, according to Conger, “Even if your credibility is high, your position must still appeal to the people you are trying to persuade”. Our audience must know the benefits for them of supporting our appeal. Many times creating this common ground will be easy, but other times the mutual benefits may not be apparent. But what happens if our audience does not identify or accept our attempt to create common ground? The answer is that we will fail to gain our audience’s support, because they can’t rely on credibility alone. Our proposition is not attractive to them because they see no reason for adopting it; the benefits are usually not clearly put forward. Therefore, the first of Aristotle’s three reasons for accepting a message (namely, practical reason, excellence and good will) will not be present.

On the other hand, we mustn’t overestimate our own credibility. We may feel that we are well informed, liked, and have a good understanding with our staff. But others may not be so sure as we are about ourselves. We may feel that we understand the big picture, but others may think differently. Surveys tend to show that managers often miscalculate their true levels of credibility. Employees, in a survey in theUK6, for example, voiced lack of confidence in their manager’s ability to lead them to the future. Indeed, only 30% of employees thought their management had a vision worth relying on (meaning 70% of employees thought their management had no such vision).

Finally, identification with external associations can give credibility. “Membership of a given group can, in fact, raise the presumption that certain qualities will be found in its members and this presumption will gain in strength as the feeling of class or caste is more pronounced…”.7  In France, for example, an audience may be initially impressed by a speaker from one of “Les grandes ecoles”. I use the term ‘initially’ simply because such credibility is not static. Credibility is a dynamic concept and is continuously changing. Nevertheless, external associations, whether built on institutions, class, or whatever are important aspects of credibility. 


Finally we must be seen to be knowledgeable about the subject matter. We must rely on good social relationships and to be seen as an honest, steady and reliable person. In situations where we are unknown, ‘common ground’ must be established with the other party before any attempt can be made to persuade.

Aristotle, writing in his ‘Rhetoric’, claims that a positive judgement by an audience about a speaker’s character is one of the most powerful means of persuasion. In other words, he claims that an audience is prepared to accept a speaker’s personal credibility as one of the principal means of persuasion. This personal credibility he terms as ‘Ethos’. He wrote about the influence of credibility in the following way:

The orator persuades by moral character when his speech is delivered in such a manner as to render him worthy of confidence; for we trust such persons to a greater degree, and more readily. This is generally true for all types of argument and absolutely true when there is uncertainty {amphidoxein} and room for doubt” (Rh. 135 a 4-13).



1) Conger, Jay, “The necessary Art of Persuasion”, HBR, May-June, 1998.

2)  Cunningham, David, ‘Faithful Persuasion’,Universityof Notre Dame Press(1991), p.112.

3)  ibid

4)  Aristotle, “The Art of Rhetoric”, Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Book, 1991.

5)  Newman, John, Henry, “An essay in aid of a Grammar of Assent”, HarperCollins, 1979.

6)  ‘DNI’ survey as reported in their survey results on Internet.

7)  Cunningham, p.127.