Office Romances: A Good Idea?
Bribery by U.S. Companies Spreads to China and Russia

Integrity: The most Important Trait of Leadership

Are Good Leaders Born or Made? 

A good leader can motivate others to achieve organizational goals through one’s own behavior and interaction with others. Studies of leadership have produced theories involving character traits, situational interaction, function, behavior, power, vision and values, charisma, and intelligence, among others. Somebody whom people follow: somebody who guides or directs others. The most important trait in a good leader is integrity. A person of integrity lives bound sound principles and motivates through ethical behavior.

Integrity is the most important trait of leadership in our society because regardless of what other beneficial characteristics exist, people will not follow someone unless they have established trust with them.  There are unfortunately many examples of poor integrity in our recent history.  In sports, for example, Lance Armstrong recently admitted to using banned substances in his 7 Tour de France victories.  In politics, the extramarital affair of General David Petraeus set the stage for the latest example of how integrity impacts government leadership.  These two real life examples demonstrate the importance of integrity in any list of leadership traits.

In a survey conducted of chief financial officers by Robert Half, a strong moral compass was identified as a way to give high-potential managers a leg up on the career leader. One-third (33%) of the CFOs interviewed said, that other than technical skills or functional expertise, integrity is what they look for most when grooming future leaders. Interpersonal and communication skills also ranked high, cited by 28% of respondents.

CFOs were asked, “Other than technical or functional expertise, which one of the following traits do you look for most when grooming future leaders at your organization? Their responses:



Interpersonal/communication skills




Ability to motivate others


Business savvy


Other/don't know



In March 2012, the Ethisphere Institute, a leading international think-tank dedicated to the creation, advancement and sharing of best practices in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, anti-corruption and sustainability, announced its sixth annual selection of the World’s Most Ethical Companies, highlighting a record 145 organizations that show leadership in promoting ethical business standards.

One such company is L’Oréal. “As a business, employer and responsible corporate citizen, L’Oréal strives to be exemplary and to operate with integrity and respect for each of our stakeholders,” said Jean-Paul Agon, Chairman and CEO. “We believe that ethical behavior lays the foundation for future performance. This statement captures the essence of good leadership: integrity and respect for stakeholders, which leads to a trusting environment, and ethical behavior.

I recently read a good book on leadership: Leading So People Will Follow by Erika Andersen. She interviewed people about whether they believed good leaders are born or made. Most interviewers think they already know the correct answer:  they believe leaders are born.  That is, they assume that some people come into this world with a natural capacity to lead, and everybody else doesn’t, and there’s not much you can do about it.

Andersen says she has learned by observing thousands of people in business over the past 30 years, though, is that – like most things – leadership capability falls along a bell curve.  Some people are born leaders.  These folks at the top of the leadership bell curve start out very good, and tend to get even better as they go along. Then there are the folks at the bottom of the curve: that bottom 10-15% of people who, no matter how hard they try, simply aren’t ever going to be very good leaders.  They just don’t have the innate wiring.

Then there’s the big middle of the curve, where the vast majority of us live. And that’s where the real potential for “made” leaders lies.  It’s what most of my interviewers assume isn’t true – when, in fact, it is: most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders.

Andersen believes the single most powerful way to grow as a leader is to become self-aware. She does not mean self-involved as some leaders are too focused on themselves, their evolution, their drama, and so on. Becoming truly self-aware means to cultivate, on a daily basis, an accurate sense of how you show up in the world and what motivates you.  For instance: What are your actual strengths and weaknesses as a leader and as a person?  What impact do you have on others? What do you care most about?  What’s your moral compass, and do you use it as a guidance system?  How closely do your actions line up with your promises?

What Andersen found is the more self-aware someone is, the easier he or she is to coach; the more improvable and better able to accept what they need in order to improve.  She found that only about 25% of them are genuinely self-aware. The rest do not see themselves accurately.

Three ways to improve self-awareness are:

1) Become a fair witness.  To be a fair witness means to report your experience as accurately and neutrally as possible.  The more emotional attachment you have to something, the more challenging it is to be a fair witness of that thing; most of us are very emotionally attached to ourselves and our own success. Reflect on your actions, your strengths and weaknesses, your mistakes and successes, as though you are this impartial third party. What would he or she say about how you show up?

2) Invite feedback. People who want to be fully self-aware know that none of us can see ourselves entirely clearly without the aid of others.  If you want to have a more accurate sense of how you are operating in the world, build a small group of people who know you well, see you clearly, want the best for you — and are willing to be totally honest with you in the service of that.

3) Listen. This is the foundation to success as a manager, and a leader. And it’s essential to true self-awareness.  If you can learn to listen fully, without filtering what you hear through your pre-existing notions, you will find that everyone around you is continually giving you clues – both subtle and overt – about how you’re showing up, what they think of you, and how you’re impacting them.

As you become more self-aware, you’ll start to be able to build on your strengths as a leader and improve in other areas.

Warren Bennis, the well-known expert on organizational leadership, said it best: Managers are people who do things right; leaders are people who do the right thing.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage,  on February 20, 2013