What is the Most Important Quality of a Leader?

by Wally Hauck, Ph.D.

There is a scene in the movie the Cinderella Man which always inspires me. James J. Braddock is a boxer during the depression. He and his family are in very tough times. They're out of money. They're out of food. He damaged his hand in a fight and was forced to search for work on the docks of New York until it healed. The lights are about to be shut off. The family is hungry.

He comes home after a long day looking for some kind of work to find his son in trouble. Apparently, knowing the family was out of food, his son stole a large sausage from the butcher earlier in the day. His mom, James' wife, has been waiting for James to return to deal with the situation.

James asks his son where he got the sausage. He admits his act of theft. James walks him down the street to the butcher and tells him to give the sausage back, admit his mistake, and apologize. The act of committing to integrity even in the face of the most difficult of circumstances is what inspired me. This is one reason why I believe integrity comes first in the list of leadership qualities. Integrity is the most important characteristic for a leader. It is the foundation of all the others.

There is a pattern of key skills that describe qualities of effective leaders, as you can see in the hundreds of articles I've written on leadership. These include (not in any particular order), confidence, vision, effective communication, attitude, courage, inspiration, decision making, empathy, sense of humor, emotional intelligence, honesty etc.  In my opinion, none of these come close to the importance of integrity. Furthermore, each of these characteristics relies on integrity to be fully effective.

The Essence of Success
R. Buckminster Fuller once said, "Integrity is the essence of everything successful…and…if humanity does not opt for integrity, we are through completely. It is absolutely touch and go. Each one of us could make the difference." Here is where leaders must start their growth. They must begin by committing to behaving with integrity. Otherwise, we attract failure and/or destruction. Integrity is the foundation for success and for leadership.

If you build a house, the foundation is the essence of longevity. Any weakness or lack of alignment will show up later with cracks, leaks, and/or even collapse. Building a solid foundation for leadership must begin with integrity. Ask yourself this question, "which comes first, integrity or emotional intelligence? Vision or integrity? Inspiration or integrity? Effective communication or integrity? Integrity or honesty?" I believe integrity drives all of these qualities.
"In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy.
And, if they don't have the first one, the other two will kill you."
Warren Buffet, CEO Berkshire Hathaway

How to Begin
So how do we operationalize integrity so we can begin to build our leadership skills? We must start with observable behavior in order to know if we have the solid foundation. Start with the basics. Here are three statements describing behavior to get us started and keep us busy the rest of our lives.

Three simple statements which are not easy
The first statement is, "Make only agreements you intend to keep." This means we must think about our commitments and promises to be sure we can keep them before we say "yes." Otherwise, we must say "No!  I can't do that." The Bible asks the question, who should you trust, the person who tells you what you want to hear and then fails to deliver? Or, do we trust the person who tells you "no" right upfront?  The answer is obvious. It's the person who is willing to say no.

An agreement (or promise and/or commitment) is defined as a task which is specific, measurable and time sensitive, and where you believe you can deliver the desired result. For example, coming to work on-time is an agreement. If work starts at 8:30 AM, you need to arrive no later than 8:30 AM. You know how to get to work and you know when to leave the house and you know about (on average) how much time it will take. Therefore, you can make this agreement. Right? I know what you're thinking. Sometimes "stuff" happens. Sometimes that "stuff "messes up your method for arriving on-time. How can we protect our integrity when the "stuff" prevents us from keeping our agreements? This brings us to statement #2.

The second statement reinforces the first. It states, "Communicate immediately when you can't keep your agreement to those who need to know." If we can't come to work on-time due to weather, traffic, or other unforeseen circumstance, we must let people know immediately. Communicating the result of a miscalculation, mistake, and/or inability to predict an unpredictable event protects us. It is a demonstration of integrity as long as it does not become a trend or a habit.

The third statement supports the first two and builds a process by which we can manage our integrity in any and all events which can impact our performance. "Admit when a mistake is made and take action to correct it and prevent it from occurring again." If our choices show a pattern of broken agreements, we must stop and ask, "How can this be stopped?" Unless we are willing to break the pattern of dysfunction we convert from a leader into a victim of our circumstances. A victim is one who is injured and has little or no power for change. Committing to this last statement prevents us from falling victim. It lifts us up from injury to possibility.

These three statements begin to define integrity. They are simple to understand but they are challenging (not easy) to live.  Making and keeping agreements is the minimum we can do to be a model of leadership. It is the minimum we can do to live with integrity. It is a foundation. We must build upon it. We must create and communicate a vision, inspire others, and communicate effectively, etc. But without these three statements, we have no foundation for integrity. Without this integrity, we have no leadership.
Dr. Wally Hauck is a Communico facilitator and author of Art of Leading: 3 Principles for Predictable Performance Improvement and Stop the Leadership Malpractice: How to Replace the Typical Performance Appraisal. You can follow him on Facebook.
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