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Pop Quiz!

What is the single most important leadership trait?

Determination? Confidence? Courage? Intelligence?

While those are great guesses, research indicates integrity – the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles – is the most essential quality for highly effective leadership.

“So … you’re saying administrators should stay out of trouble. Isn’t that obvious?”

Clearly, school leaders should avoid making newspaper headlines for the wrong reasons. However, we’re not talking about egregious acts of incompetence. Instead, we're talking about a leader who is loyal, reliable, and ethical at all times.


I once worked for a leader who was highly talented.

This individual was motivated, intelligent, and charismatic. Armed with a charming personality and an infectious smile, they were the type of person who could walk into a room and immediately command people's attention.

As naturally gifted as this individual was, there was one small problem: they lacked integrity.

For example, this person would often commit to doing something but fail to deliver on those promises. Next, this person played "favorites" with employees as opposed to making decisions based on individual merit. Finally, this person expected staff to work long hours yet was always the last to arrive and the first to leave.

As time passed, employees eventually lost trust in this administrator. Despite possessing nearly every leadership characteristic, this person was incapable of being highly effective because the lacked the most important trait.


It's hard to talk about integrity without mentioning servant leadership.

Servant leadership is a management style where leaders have a primary focus of serving the employees they lead. Whereas traditional leadership is focused on command and control, servant leadership centers around trust and empowerment.

Servant leadership has a trickle-down effect within a school. When administrators focus on meeting the needs of teachers, teachers feel supported and valued. And when teachers' needs are met, they can focus on meeting the needs of their students. In short, servant leadership creates a virtuous cycle of goodwill.

It's ain't rocket science.

Another important aspect of servant leadership is willingness for feedback. While traditional leaders make decisions in isolation, servant leaders actively seek feedback from the trenches. By asking teachers and other frontline employees for their opinion, servant leaders make decisions that positively impact the entire organization.

Finally, servant leadership creates psychological safety. Leaders with integrity allow employees to be authentic and take chances without fear of retribution. Servant leadership allows employees to innovate, learn from their mistakes, and channel their energy into professional growth.

Servant leaders understand the importance of funneling support to frontline employees.


Curious as to what how you can demonstrate integrity? Here are six ideas:

Active Listening: First and foremost, leaders with integrity know it is their responsibility to listen. Whereas some leaders spend most of their time talking, servant leaders spend most of their time listening. Leaders with integrity understand the importance of asking questions, working endlessly to understand perspectives and provide support.

Follow-through: Few things erode trust more than a leader who fails to follow-through on a commitment. Reliable leaders are adamant about being true to their word. Dependable bosses develop systems for keeping track of commitments and let impacted individuals know when action steps are complete.

Model Transparency: Have you worked for a school leader who refuses to share information beyond of a select group of individuals? Rather than keep details close to the vest, leaders with integrity understand the importance of sharing most information with broader audiences. Furthermore, these leaders understand the importance of explaining the rationale behind decisions.

Loyal to the Absent: Leaders with integrity refuse to say anything about an employee that they wouldn't be willing to say to that employee. This can be challenging, especially given how difficult some staff can be! But when leaders are respectful of all employees all the time, they establish an environment where it is unacceptable to disrespect colleagues.

Have Courage: Noble leaders realize is it their responsibility to handle employee issues. Whereas hypocritical bosses condemn poor behavior but lack the backbone to confront frequent offenders, genuine leaders understand it is their moral imperative to address underperforming employees. Leaders who courageously confront difficult staff immediately earn trust from followers.

Take Ownership: Honorable bosses assume full responsibility for anything that happens under their watch. Whereas some bosses are quick to blame others for mistakes, leaders with integrity understand that significant employee mistakes are typically the result of inadequate training or poor hiring. Furthermore, modest leaders have no issue apologizing to employees when major errors in judgement are made.

Leaders with integrity assume responsibliity for anything that happens within their organization.


Business tycoon Warren Buffet once said, “In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

School leaders can have all of the enthusiasm, courage, confidence, and wisdom in the world. But if they don’t have strong moral principles, the rest doesn’t matter.

Integrity is the single most important leadership trait.


If you liked this article, you'll love my books Learning Curve and Turning Points.



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