Many years ago, I examined several dozen research articles, papers and books on leadership to identify the most common characteristics of great leaders. Integrity was one of only four characteristics that appeared on nearly every list.

I think most of us have an idea about what is meant by integrity. The dictionary definition is “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” This could perhaps be stated as simply “walk the talk.”

I am also pretty certain that almost all leaders, even some who ultimately go to jail, believe they are acting with integrity. So what, then, is the true test of a leader’s integrity? Let me suggest the true test of a leader’s integrity is whether his or her followers — partners, employees and trusted advisers in your case — perceive that the leader is acting with integrity.

The true test of integrity, then, is based on the leader’s actions. Let me suggest three things you can do to show your partners, employees and trusted advisers that you are a leader with integrity:

1. Do what you say every single time.

I am dealing with a situation right now where a very strong relationship between a key employee I am coaching and the owner has been dramatically and negatively impacted because the employee perceives that the owner’s current action contradicts a promise made only a couple months ago. 

Because perception is often reality in the mind of us human beings, you must be very, very clear in what you say and then do exactly what you said.

You are correct in thinking, “I can’t always do what I say; situations do change.” In these situations, it is important that you explain the deviation and why it is required.

2. Do not overpromise.

Most of us tend to be optimistic; we do not want to disappoint others, and we often have unrealistic expectations. All of these often result in us unintentionally overpromising. Even though it is done with good intentions, this is a big no-no for a leader. It appears that you are promising and not delivering! Naturally, your integrity suffers.

You should try very hard to deliver on every promise. Again, when that is not possible, explain why and apologize when necessary. “I was wrong” is often a very powerful statement that builds integrity.

3. Be on time always.

My first department chair at Cornell University went further than just starting faculty meetings on time; he started them a couple minutes early. The negative impact that resulted when his successors deviated from that policy left a lasting impression on me. 

I have always been a stickler for arriving at appointments and starting meetings on time.  The power of that policy was evident at a meeting with several of my clients recently. I arrived a couple minutes early as usual. Fifteen minutes later, when the last person arrived, his apologetic statement went something like this: He said to himself even during the drive to the meeting that he was in trouble because “Bob will be on time.”  

Being on time sends a powerful message that you are organized and in control and that those you are meeting with are important. Failures to be on time reduce your integrity. 

Leadership Lesson: Your integrity is measured by the perceptions of those you lead; increase your integrity by WALKING THE TALK. 

Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at or 651-647-0495.