The Single Most Important Trait of Great Leaders

trait great leaders

People willingly follow a leader who is consistent, moral and trustworthy.

So it is perhaps no surprise that integrity was chosen as the most important leadership competency in a recent survey of leaders from around the world.

Abraham Lincoln (perhaps the best known US President for having integrity) said: “Great leadership is a product of great character. And that is why character matters.”

In a recent study published by Harvard Business Review, Sunnie Giles found that the majority of the 195 leaders across 15 countries interviewed agreed that “high ethical and moral standards” was one of the most important leadership qualities (67% of those interviewed selected it as one of their top 15 from 74 traits).

The study concluded that a person with a good moral compass is vital to success because they by virtue create a safe and trusting environment for their employees, which in turn “allows for the creativity to flow, innovation and ambition.” This translates to a leader with a strong sense of fairness – confidence that everyone is in it together – so that the workforce can quite simply get on with the job.

Also read: 3 Ways Leaders Can Win Company-Wide Support

The study went on to say how neuroscience concurs with these findings, as when we are in the ‘fight or flight response’ “we lose access to the social engagement system of the limbic brain and the executive function of the prefrontal cortex, inhibiting creativity and the drive for excellence.” Thus, leaders must strive to make people feel safe on a deeper level so they can be their most productive and creative self. As Richard Buckminster Fuller once said “integrity is the essence of everything successful.”

Some would say great leaders are born, not made. Certainly, some of us are born with qualities that make a great leader, but most of us develop our skills through much practice. Integrity is a quality that is more abstract and esoteric. To quote Oprah Winfrey: “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” However, it is more complex than that as any great leader will inevitably make morally or ethically questionable decisions at some point, but if they have integrity they will have the strength of character and self- awareness to know how to learn from those mistakes.

Also read: 4 Key Leadership Behaviors That Make You Extremely Employable

“There are many things you can lack and still steer clear of danger. Integrity isn’t one of them. Establish a set of sound ethics policies, integrate them into all business processes, communicate them broadly to all employees, and make clear that you will not tolerate any deviation from any of them. Then live by them.”(Enrique P. Fiallo author on purposeful leadership)

Leaders with integrity walk the talk. A great leader will achieve organizational goals and motivate others through their own ethical behaviour – we learn best through example! Act in a way that is consistent with your values – if you suddenly hear that little voice inside disagreeing with a decision you are making – it is time to reconnect with your core values. Be honest, be fair and be forthright – create a ‘safe’ working environment. Integrity is critical for building trust – people will not follow someone they do not trust and without which problems will inevitably arise. In a survey conducted of chief financial officers by Robert Half International, one-third (33%) of the CFOs interviewed said, that other than technical skills or working expertise, integrity is what they look for most when training future leaders. 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”.

As a leader who lives and leads with integrity you will not only benefit the people you lead, but also enjoy more peace in your personal life and experience greater success in your business endeavours.

About the Author

Tatiana Compton is a freelance journalist who has covered accountancy and finance in both the UK and US.