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Honesty: The single most important leadership value

Honesty is a leader’s most valuable and most valued leadership quality; it serves as the gateway for trust and inspiration.

Honesty the single most important leadership value article image

In a survey of over 100,000 people, my colleagues Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner found that the most valued leadership quality is by far honesty (89%).1

Unfortunately, most leaders are failing miserably in this imperative. The public relations firm Edelman performs a global survey each year called the Trust Barometer, which gauges the public’s trust in leaders and institutions.

In 2014, the survey gathered data from more than 33,000 respondents, and discovered that only 20% of people trust business leaders to tell the truth, and only 13% trust government officials to tell the truth.

Edelman PR president and CEO, Richard Edelman noted, “We’re clearly experiencing a crisis in leadership.2

Honesty is what we expect first and foremost from our leaders, yet it’s the area where we seem to be failing the most. The data suggests that about 4 out of 5 leaders are, in effect, not leading even close to as effectively as they could and need to.

The question I’ve been asking for more than a decade has been: How does one truly teach honesty to leaders who intellectually think they know exactly what honesty is, but in practice fall short all too often?

To find an answer to this question, I frequently ask participants in seminars if they think that 4 out of 5 leaders know that they are distrusted. Do those leaders look in the mirror and admit to themselves that they are behaving in ways that alienate their team members? The overwhelming answer, of course, is no.

Then, I follow up with another question: How can you be sure you are not doing exactly the same thing as them? At this, the audience always goes quiet. If there is enough emotional safety in the room, many admit they actually don’t know for sure.

It’s incredibly important for ourselves, those we lead, and those we love that we live according to our values. One study published in the Journal of business ethics, investigated whether employee’s perceptions of their manager’s behavioural integrity influences measures of job satisfaction, engagement, turnover likelihood, absenteeism, stress, work-family conflict, health, and life satisfaction. The researchers found numerous correlations between perceived behavioural integrity and employee performance. Leaders with high perceived behavioural integrity lead teams that are significantly more satisfied in their job, less likely to be absent, less stressed, and report greater overall health and wellbeing and life satisfaction.3

Honesty is a leader’s most valued and valuable leadership quality because it is the gateway for trust and inspiration. As Tony Simons, professor at Cornell University and author of The Integrity Divide, states, “Organisations where employees strongly believed their managers followed through on promises and commitments, and demonstrated the values they preached were substantially more profitable than those whose managers scored average or lower.”

Our greatest challenge in leadership, and in life, is not honesty with others—though that is tough too—our greatest challenge is being honest with ourselves.


1 Kouzes, James and Posner, Barry. The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.

2 Kiisel, Ty. “82 Percent Of People Don’t Trust The Boss To Tell The Truth.” Forbes Magazine 30 Jan. 2013. Web.

3 Prottas, D. J. (2013). Relationships among employee perception of their manager’s behavioral integrity, moral distress, and employee attitudes and well-being. Journal of business ethics113(1), 51-60.

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