For more than 20 years I have taught leadership at startup companies to the Fortune 50 and the single most important trait for highly effective leaders has always been the exact same thing. I can show you dozens of major research studies from around the world, representing millions of respondents, and they all say the exact same thing. When I teach classes on leadership and ask the attendees what they look for in a leader they would willingly follow, it’s always the exact same thing…
However, it is getting harder and harder for people to believe this. In nearly every arena; business, politics, religion, science, education…there are “leaders” who have no problem lying. I’m not talking about small mistruths, or perhaps twisting the facts a little bit, I’m talking about boldface, in-your-face, complete and utter lies. So-called “leaders” who can look you straight in the eye and tell you something that they know is absolutely false.
I am NOT taking any sides here. Every side of everything now has people who seem to have no regard for the truth and are willing to say anything, no matter how outlandish, to advance their position. When I open the floor for questions at my events, inevitably someone will ask, “If telling the truth is so important, then why do we have so many leaders who don’t?” My response: “I don’t know. It does not make any sense to me. I would not consider those people leaders; however, they are in leadership positions. I don’t understand how people like that rise to the top positions in organizations. It drives me crazy.”
The Death of Honesty?
I refuse to believe that we have come to a place in society where lying is an acceptable, even expected, behavior. I’m at the point where I question the validity everything I hear and read and that is painful and frustrating. It makes me physically tired to listen to the news and hear the constant stream of stories about “leaders” who have been lying, cheating, stealing, killing… and mostly getting away with it. I cannot fathom the damage this has done to our society and the example it is setting for our youth. It terrifies me to think about a generation of young people who have been raised watching authority figures lie, and then lie about their lies.
But I believe there is a solution and it starts with you and me.
Now more than ever I feel that it is essential to be a living example of honesty and integrity. It is only through modeling these behaviors, in even the most challenging situations, that we can demonstrate that character, authenticity and truth telling are truly the most essential characteristics of leadership. We need to make more of an effort to highlight and showcase successful leaders who build great companies on a foundation of honesty, fairness respect and generosity. We also need to call out “leaders” when they are dishonest, when they mislead us, and hold them accountable for their destructive actions and behaviors.
This will not be easy. There is a tsunami of misinformation, lies, fake news and manipulation coming from all directions. Again, I am not taking any sides here, I am simply saying that it is up to you and me to hold ourselves to the highest standard of honesty and integrity in our personal and business lives. I will end with one of my favorite value statements, from one of the greatest leadership institutions in the world, West Point.
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
Sounds like a good plan to me.
For more of John’s ideas on leadership here is a link to his book