Honesty in Leadership

Of all the characteristics typically included on lists that define leadership, the word honesty is often missing.  As one who has taught many courses on various leadership development topics, I have had the opportunity to work with numerous individuals ranging from senior executives to members of the rank and file.  And just whom do you think are the individuals who most often have recognized the need for honesty in leaders?  You guessed it, those individuals in positions not typically associated with being a leader in an organization.

So why is it that honesty, as a fundamental trait of being a successful leader, is recognized more often by individuals in lower-level positions than those in the senior and executive ranks?  In the plethora of books on leadership topics that have been written throughout the years, honesty is hardly ever…discussed. In his book, What It Takes to Be #1, Vince Lombardi, Jr., son of the Green Bay Packers legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, Sr., writes that his father always professed that “to be successful you’ve got to be honest with yourself.”  People have an unerring ability to sense when others, especially leaders, are less than honest and forthright.  As a result, trust is lost.

What does it take to be an honest leader?

To be a successful and honest leader, you must recognize your weaknesses.  If one of them is that you’re not honest and forthright with people, you may need to do something about it.  Maybe you’re not confident in your ability to be honest with people and as a result, you avoid addressing an issue that as a leader requires your attention.  As I learned from personal experiences throughout my career, people deserve to be dealt with honestly even when the message is not what they want to hear.

In his book, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, the former U.S. Secretary of State and Army General states that the number one secret is that “being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”  And the underlying premise of the secret is that a successful leader deals with people in an open and honest manner – recognizing that you can’t always get everyone to like you, you can’t avoid making tough decisions, nor can you avoid confronting people.  Often the terms such as truthful, trustworthy and integrity are used to describe a great leader and all are certainly desirable qualities.  And these together add-up to defining the overarching quality of honesty.  So as Billy sang, “honesty, it’s hardly ever heard.”  And yet as Kouzes & Posner identify in their book, The Leadership Challenge, of the top 20 characteristics of admired leaders surveyed over a 20-year span, the highest percentage characteristic by far has always been honesty.

So, whether you know the tune or not, to be the successful leader you want to become keep in mind that honesty needs to be heard and practiced all the time.


About Author

Numerous years of experience as an educator, human resources professional, and leadership coach and trainer. Has coached and developed individuals at all levels of organizations including CEOs and numerous others in executive and senior leadership positions throughout a 30-plus year career in the utility profession throughout the U.S and internationally.

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