The Single Most Important Quality for Lasting Leadership

— March 21, 2017

Over 75,000 people were asked: What qualities in a leader would inspire you to follow willingly?


One quality topped the list: honesty.


Integrity is another word for honesty. We trust people who we believe have integrity. We distrust those who we perceive lack integrity.


But integrity is just a word. Enron had integrity listed as one of their five core values. The word itself doesn’t hold much power. The power comes when a person’s or company’s behavior supports what the word represents.


Businesses run by men and women with integrity have a long-term, competitive advantage over those who don’t.


In the short term, a business without integrity might grow faster. But as the demand for transparency grows in the marketplace, these businesses struggle to stay afloat.


In The Maslow Business Reader, psychologist Abraham Maslow notes that:



“any enterprise which wishes to endure over a long period and to remain in a healthy and growing state would certainly want a non-manipulative, trusting relationship with its customers rather than the relationship of the quick fleecing, never to see them again.”


The Key to Forming Social Bonds


If we reduce customer loyalty to a strategy, we miss the point.


Authentic customer loyalty doesn’t come from loyalty programs or rewards cards.


These are valid marketing strategies. But you don’t create loyalty from strategies.


To understand the drivers of loyalty, we need to start by appreciating how we form social bonds in our personal lives and around the office.


To adopt a customer-oriented psychology, first consider how you relate to other people:



  • How do you form meaningful relationships?
  • What leads you to be loyal to one human being over another?
  • Do you form loyal bonds with someone you don’t trust?

Trust is the foundation for social bonds, for we don’t like associating with people we don’t trust.


But why is it often so challenging to build trust?


The People We Play at Work


Starting in early childhood, we put on social masks—what Carl Jung called personas. We use these masks to interface with the world.


We hide behind these masks in adulthood because we don’t want others to see who we are.


There are two primary reasons for this:


First, we believe we should appear a certain way within specific roles. We adopt role models from films, television, and people we encounter.


Unconsciously, we model their behavior even if that behavior doesn’t serve us.


Many entrepreneurs believe they need to look powerful and certain at all times to gain the trust and respect of their team. (Perhaps like Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street.)


But who is certain all the time? Could you trust someone that believes they hold all the answers to everything?


Second, we fear not being accepted by others. The need for approval is a driving force behind much of our behavior because it’s a basic human need.


The challenge with our social masks is that they are dishonest. If we are consciously wearing them, we are deceiving others. If we are unconsciously wearing them, we are deceiving ourselves.


Even though others may not know they are being deceived, their subconscious mind knows all. Deception makes people feel uneasy, which leads them to put up their guard.


When a person is defensive, it uproots their ability to be open and to trust.


The Secret to Building Trust


The secret to building trust is fostering humility.


Humility is an inner acknowledgment you are a human being with vulnerabilities, imperfections, and the propensity for failure—just like everyone else.


Jim Collins’ research on outperforming leaders highlights that humility is one of the primary attributes that differentiates top leaders from everyone else.


That means that top leaders possess the courage to take off their social masks enough to allow people to see their vulnerability.


When an employee can see their leader as vulnerable, the leader becomes more accessible to them.


Employees can then relate to their leader through their humanity, which helps establish greater openness and trust.


There’s an inherent power in vulnerability and it takes courage to actualize it.


How to Develop Humility


Here are a few reminders for walking the path to greater humility:



  • Making mistakes is okay. It’s okay to fail. If you openly expose your follies, it will give your people permission to fail too. And it will inspire innovation.
  • Lighten up and laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Work (and life) is infinitely more enjoyable with a sense of humor, including the self-deprecating kind. Psychologist Daniel Goleman says self-deprecating humor is a trademark of self-leadership.
  • You need not have all answers. We’re all mostly making it up as we go along. Operate from the Zen principle of Beginner’s Mind. Approach projects and problems with openness, curiosity, and an eagerness to learn.
  • Pride blocks humility. Pride and arrogance are the reasons so many leaders fail in the long-run.
  • Comparing yourself to others reduces your level of happiness. Inspired leaders hold a vision for themselves based on internal standards, not external comparisons.
  • Putting up a “strong front” is a sign of insecurity. Showing humility and vulnerability are evidence of inner strength.
  • Own your shadow. The shadow represents all of the qualities we repress and cut ourselves off from during childhood. Those who know their “darker brother” have more humility because they are more intimate with their authentic self.

Your employees are modeling their behaviors after you. The more humility you show, the more open and relatable your team will become.


Cultivate a Trusting Organization


To evaluate the overall level of trust within your business, consider:



  1. How strongly do you trust your leadership team?
  2. Does your team trust you?
  3. How do you and your leadership team view your customers (for example, as dollar signs or as human beings like you)?
  4. Do your customers have a reason to trust you? Are there valid reasons NOT to trust your brand?

Be honest. Start from where you are.


Know that building trust always starts with integrity—with the cultivating of inner honesty.


Integrity is easy to write and read about; it is far more challenging to live it. But that’s the call to adventure for all leaders destined to make major contributions to others.


Cultivating integrity and trust isn’t a weekend affair, but a daily, continuous practice.


Integrity Translates to Profits


Would you expect your customers to form an emotional bond with a business they don’t trust?


Honest businesses are more likely to attract honest customers who will form loyal bonds to their brand. These loyal patrons become your best customers who buy from you more often and promote your business for you.


It’s that simple. And it’s that challenging.

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Author: Scott Jeffrey


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