By Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

 We often hear colleagues say, “To be honest…” Although this phrase is typically only used for emphasis, I always think to myself, “If you are being honest now, WHEN were you NOT honest?” My immediate reaction illustrates how important the perception of honesty is in human interaction. Nowhere is honesty more critical than in the leadership arena. For this reason, honesty is one of the ten characteristics of Courageous Leadership.

Definition of Honesty

Honesty refers to a facet of moral character and illustrates positive and virtuous attributes such as integrity, truthfulness, loyalty, fairness, sincerity, and straightforwardness along with the absence of lying, cheating, and threatening behaviors. Some even suggests that honesty is a leader’s most valuable leadership quality, providing a gateway for trust and inspiration. Thomas Jefferson is said to have remarked in 1819, “…Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”

A review of the literature on this concept finds that honesty is often described as keeping your word, following through on promises and delivering on commitments in a timely manner. For example, Russel & Stone (2002), in a literature review regarding servant leadership, identified honesty as the second most important attribute necessary to excel as a servant leader, and integrity was third.

Integrity is a synonym of honesty, which is often used to provide a more complete definition of this concept, particularly when it is used in the context of leadership. A person with integrity is not flimsy or two-faced.  A leader with integrity is the same person on Monday morning they were on Sunday, and they don’t tell different stories to different people. They keep their word, follow through on promises, and deliver what they say, when they say (Suri, 2019).

From a practical point of view, we consider people to be honest when they are willing to communicate what they are thinking or feeling, even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular. An honest person listens and discusses issues even before relevant data is complete, when possible options for action are not clear, and decisions are not final (Juetten, 2019).

How Common is Dishonesty?

Do we believe that most of our colleague are generally honest? Or do we suspect that many with whom we work are often dishonest—at least some of the time? An interesting study on the likelihood of honesty versus dishonesty arose from a workshop at the University of Amsterdam. The workshop was designed to bring researchers together to work on the question, “Is self-serving lying intuitive or is honesty more natural?” The research findings presented by the workshop’s presenters were wildly disparate. Some concluded that when people are instructed to tell lies, their initial instinct is to tell the truth. Therefore, telling a lie requires cognitive effort, making the person less likely to lie. Other researchers found that when people are tired, under pressure, or distracted they are more likely to cave in to various temptations, including lying. Because of the differences in the hypotheses between the two findings, the workshop participants conducted a metanalysis to clarify the differing perspectives on   honesty. The resulting research suggested that in an anonymous setting, when dishonesty does not have an obvious victim, more people are likely to be dishonest. However, when dishonesty harms concrete others, dishonest behavior is less likely. This suggests that the notion of “do no harm” to the victim outweighs the selfish appeal of dishonesty.

A Leader’s Role in Developing Honesty in a Work Environment 

While much more research is needed to fully understand the honesty/dishonesty question, the findings resulting from the University of Amsterdam workshop suggest ways an honest leader can influence a work environment through effective communication. Let’s consider these 12 ideas:

Work Environment

    1. Be dependable and follow through on your commitments.
    2. Admit your own mistakes, demonstrating that you and others in your work environment must be accountable.
    3. Do not expect your employees or colleagues to necessarily take you at your word that you are honest. Time is required to trust one another.
    4. Address issues of dishonesty when they arise.
    5. Provide a safe environment for candid discussion about failures and recognize that failure is a part of moving toward success.
    6. Be willing to make hard decisions.


    1. Exercise patience and emotional control.
    2. Embrace transparency. “I don’t know” is an acceptable response for a leader.
    3. Be a role model for respectful dialogue during conflict. Consider how you would like to have your mistakes discussed.
    4. Temper honesty with compassion. When you do so, others are likely to adopt that behavior.
    5. Encourage others to speak freely. Speaking freely does not mean being unkind.
    6. Deal with rumors by speaking the truth.

Most of us want to be considered an honest leader—and we certainly want to work for a leader who is honest. A short story emphasizes how important honesty is in a leadership role. A young faculty member was excited about her new position in a well-known academic institution. The faculty was particularly impressed with the Dean of her unit, who was articulate, innovative, and charismatic. The first several years of the faculty’s employment went well, and the Dean was particularly complimentary of the faculty’s work. However, as time passed, the faculty noticed that sometimes the Dean’s comments did not ring true. For example, the Dean would assign workload to her, and then suddenly, the Dean would ask her to do additional work. The reasons for the changes were always someone else’s call. Over time, the Dean’s dishonest behavior escalated and the faculty member began to look for another position.

An excellent employee was lost because the Dean did not demonstrate honesty. A cautionary tale for us all.


Juetten, M. (2019, September 12). Leadership Tips: Honesty as A Policy. Forbes.   https://www.forbes.com/sites/maryjuetten/2019/09/12/leadership-tips-honesty-as-a-policy/?sh=2fd5f836d779)  Accessed February 2021.

Kobis, N. (2018, July 8). Are we intuitively honest or dishonest? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-in-context/201907/are-we-intuitively-honest-or-dishonest. Accessed February 2021.

Russel, R., Stone, A. (2002) A review of service leadership:  Attributes developing a practical model.  Leadership & Organization Development Journal 23(3) 145-157.

Suri, F. (2019, February 7). Integrity, the cornerstone of leadership. People Matters. https://www.peoplemattersglobal.com/blog/leadership/leadership-integrity-20756?utm_source=peoplematters&utm_medium=interstitial&utm_campaign=learnings-of-the-day. Accessed February 2021.

This article is one in a series on the components of Courageous Leadership. For more information, visit our Courageous Leadership web page.

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