Leadership involves so many difficult challenges and exceptional behaviors and mindsets. These days, we ask much of our leaders.
When I ask workers to quickly name the qualities that arise in their minds when they hear the word “leader,” I am instantly assaulted by a barrage of words: vision, charisma, confidence, clarity, responsibility, results, judgment, emotional intelligence, coach, and much more.
What is the most important aspect of leadership? Have you thought about that?
In my view, the most important aspect of leadership is integrity, because everything else leaders do flows from it (or its absence), followed by the courage to uphold it.
Warren Bennis, the late scholar and author widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership, once wrote:
“Integrity is the most important characteristic of a leader, and one that he or she must be prepared to demonstrate again and again.”
Reflecting on his approach to hiring, Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, noted:
“I look for three things in hiring people. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is high energy level. But if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”
Yes, we have seen many leaders with smarts and ambition get into trouble when they lack integrity and make poor choices.
For our book, Triple Crown Leadership, we interviewed leaders in 61 organizations in 11 countries, and sought to find out how leaders build organizations that are excellent (exceptional results and positive impacts across stakeholders), ethical (doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard), and enduring (standing the test of time and operating sustainably).
When we interviewed Girish Vaidya, former Senior Vice President of the Infosys Leadership Institute, we asked him about the relationship between excellent results, operating with integrity, and sustaining these practices over time. He noted, “You might get high performance for a while even if there is no integrity, but for consistent high performance, integrity is absolutely important.”
Notably, they view integrity not just as an aspiration or value but as something to bake into their culture and their organizational storytelling during onboarding and meetings.
During your career, your integrity will be tested. Have you committed to doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard? Do you have people around you with the courage to step up and ask the hard questions and push back when there are concerns? In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott wrote:
“There is something deep within us that responds to those who level with us.”
Think of your own leadership at its best, whether at work or in community engagements, sports, or family. Think of the leaders you admire, and the ones who have influenced you in lasting ways and brought out your best.
In all cases, you are likely to find people, though not perfect, who are deeply committed to honesty, fairness, and other fundamental moral principles. Integrity is essential in leadership.
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower, former five-star Army general and U.S. president
More Articles from Our Series on Ethical Leadership
- The Importance of Credibility in Leadership
- The Root Cause of Ethical Failings
- Leadership and the Ethics Imperative
- The Importance of Trust in Leadership
- The Problem of Bad Leaders—and Why People Keep Following Them
Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on Leadership Derailers (and how to avoid them).