The simplest definition of leadership is influence—the ability of one person to influence those who follow him or her. This influence is dependent upon a relationship of trust. People will only follow or be influenced by someone they trust. In order to establish a relationship of trust, a leader must demonstrate perhaps the most important character trait of leadership, and that is honesty.
Before we dive into honesty, let’s think about why trust is so critical in the leader/follower relationship. The most common version of this relationship involves a team leader and a team member, such as executive/employee, officer/enlisted, teacher/student, or some other such interaction. In these leader/follower relationships, the follower is entrusting something of himself, whether it be economic well-being, career development, or even safety and life, to the leader. For the follower to completely buy in and place himself firmly under the influence of the leader, the follower must feel that leader is going to be a good steward of whatever is entrusted to her. The very word “entrust” indicates the importance of trust in the relationship. If the leader appears to be untrustworthy, the follower will constantly consider how far he is willing to go for the leader, or how much of himself to entrust to her.
There are additional character traits that are involved in building the trust relationship, such as authenticity, empathy, and humility, but honesty is the most fundamental or foundational character trait in building a relationship of trust. Honesty is a crucial part of establishing any leader’s credibility.
Some might characterize honesty as not lying or cheating, but honesty in leadership goes well beyond this simple description. Honesty in leadership should actually be thought of as an eagerness for the truth, in which there are three particular components.
The first component of honesty is the most obvious—truthfulness. This component requires a rigid adherence to truth, and here is where the abstinence from lying, cheating, and stealing come in. Truthfulness also requires a straightforward approach to truth, not dodging it or using partial truths to deceive. In true honesty the truth cannot be colored or manipulated.
The second component of honesty is candor, which takes the concept of straightforward truth a step further. Candor is the quality of being open, honest, and sincere. Candor means proactively presenting and seeking the truth. One might regard the truthful answering of questions as honesty, but candor requires proactively presenting information that could be of interest to the other person. Candor is open communication. In a business setting, for example, a leader might openly discuss the consideration of a plan to close or relocate a plant. Candor requires presenting the truth whether it is good news or bad news. Along with candor should be the ability of the leader to hear truth or opinions from those around him, whether it is good news or bad. A culture of candor is open truth-telling.
The third component of honesty is guilt or responsibility acceptance. This becomes a bit more personal when a leader is fully committed to admitting to their mistakes and taking responsibility for decisions or plans that did not turn out well. To do otherwise represents a shirking of the truth and undermines the character of the leader.
Effective leadership is a complex combination of character traits (or habits) and competencies (or skills and practices) that build a relationship of trust and influence. Only when followers see a never-broken pattern of honesty in the leader, will they be able to fully trust the leader. With the establishment of complete trust, followers can then invest their energy, livelihood, and commitment into the leader and the vision and goals that they are mutually pursuing.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.