Think of an ethical leader you know who exemplifies integrity, honesty, and trust. What specific behaviors cause you to experience this leader as upright, honest and trustworthy? I’ve posed this question to scores of leaders and have found the responses as varied as the leaders themselves. Here are some examples of what I’ve heard.

  1. Honesty may be seen as transparency and openness- your willingness to communicate what you’re thinking or feeling, even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular. Honesty may be seen as a willingness to listen and discuss issues before the data is completely thought through, when available alternatives are not fully crystallized, and when decisions are not yet final. It may also be seen as keeping your word, following through on promises, and delivering on time.
  2. Integrity in leadership is often equated with courage- courage to speak up when your point of view is at odds with a manager’s perspective or with a commonly held belief about how things should be done. Integrity may also be interpreted as work ethic- in early, staying late to get the right things done for the company.
  3. Trust may be based on a feeling that you have the other person’s back when he or she is not in the room. It may be the confidence you will advocate the other person’s point of view with clarity and understanding. Or, trust may be gained as you’re seen to act in the best interest of the team or organization rather than acting primarily to advance your personal agenda.

Do What it Takes

While most everyone is adamant that ethical leadership ought to demonstrate integrity, honesty and trust, they do not define or understand those terms consistently. The differences in perception make it critical for you to find out more specifically what your managers, colleagues, direct reports, and other key stakeholders are looking for when it comes to leader integrity, honesty, and trust.

It may not be enough for you to simply tell the truth when challenged or to turn in accurate expense reports. To be known for your integrity, honesty, and trust, you may need to demonstrate more personal courage; you may need to create an environment that is more open and transparent; or, you may need to build a stronger sense of teamwork and cooperation.

The critical next step is to ask around. When it comes to ethics like honesty, integrity, and trust, what do the people in your organization expect from authentic leaders?

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