• Published November 27, 2020
  • 4 Minute Read

The Irony of Integrity: Character Traits Leaders Need

Published November 27, 2020
The Irony of Integrity: Character Traits Leaders Need

Academicians and the popular press both have tried to uncover reasons behind high-profile ethics scandals by highlighting the role of character flaws in organizational or personal failures.

We conducted a research study taking an alternative approach, looking at the importance of character strengths in the performance of leaders in organizations.

We examined the relationship between job performance of C-level executives and middle-level managers, and found that these are the 4 character traits that leaders need:

  • Integrity
  • Bravery
  • Perspective
  • Social Intelligence

Overall, we found the more integrity, bravery, perspective, and social intelligence leaders have, the higher their performance ratings.

No real surprise there; these are widely understood to be among the qualities of a good leader.

But that’s not the whole story.

What Character Traits Matter Most for Leaders? Hint: One Is Integrity.

We then examined the character traits together to determine their relative importance for performance. We also compared the findings from our middle-level manager sample to the findings from our top-level executive sample.

What we found was surprising and perhaps a little disconcerting. Some character traits are more important than others when you consider leader level, and their importance differs for middle-level managers as compared to top executives. We found that:

  • Social intelligence was the most important character trait for middle-level managers’ performance, while
  • Integrity was the most important character trait for top-level executives’ performance.

Further, when comparing the findings across the 2 samples, both integrity and bravery were significantly more important predictors of performance for top-level executives than for middle-level managers.

Given that social intelligence was the most important of the 4 character strengths for middle-level managers’ performance, we encourage middle-level managers to go through leadership training initiatives aimed at improving their social intelligence.

Middle-level managers can become “stuck in the middle” of the organizational hierarchy. They are tasked with communicating the vision of those at the top to others at lower levels in an organization, while simultaneously, they have to engage with lower-level employees in the day-to-day, ground-level work. Dealing with these challenges are why leaders in the middle need certain skills to advance.

To develop greater social intelligence, mid-level managers should obtain on-the-job developmental experiences or invest in a middle manager training program so they can learn to enhance workplace relationships, given their special place in organizations.

We found that top-level executives should also pay attention to these character strengths, particularly integrity and bravery, which may go hand-in-hand:

  • Integrity is needed when deciding what action should be taken.
  • Bravery is needed to take actions that might be unpopular.

These character traits are key for senior executives.

The Irony (and Trouble) With Our Findings on Character Traits of Leaders

Our research found that while integrity is the most important character strength for the performance of top-level executives, it has less to do with the performance of middle-level managers.

The irony of this statement may provide insight into why there are ethical failures at the top of organizations.

Job performance is a well-used proxy for promotability. Managers who perform the best in their current roles are usually the ones promoted to higher levels of management.

Yet based on our results, middle-level managers may be promoted to top-level positions with little regard to their integrity, as it’s not considered as important as other factors in evaluations of their current performance.

So when middle managers are promoted to the C-suite, they may or may not have the integrity to perform effectively at higher levels. Because integrity hasn’t mattered to their performance up to that point, it may not be considered in their promotion.

Organizations may be promoting people up their ranks without knowledge of a crucial character strength needed in those top-level positions. When middle-level managers get to the top of organizations, they may neither have, nor have developed, the integrity needed at the highest of leadership levels.

What’s even more troubling, executives may not know they have problems with integrity when they become a CEO or get their C-suite office. The top-level executives in our study overrated their integrity in comparison to ratings of their integrity provided by their direct reports. The same pattern was not found for middle-level managers. The ratings of integrity by middle-level managers were much closer to (in agreement with) the ratings provided by their direct reports.

What does this mean? Integrity is a potential blind spot of serious concern.

Middle-level managers should focus on social intelligence as well as integrity, particularly if they have aspirations for succeeding in top-level positions, where integrity is of the utmost importance.

And those at the very top of organizations should try to get as much honest feedback about their integrity as they can.

If not addressed in time, this blind spot could lead to failure, infamy, or worse, and may affect far more than just the primary individuals involved, as evidenced by the devastating and far-reaching consequences of many well-publicized scandals in politics and the business world.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Explore our options for middle manager training or our executive leadership programs to ensure your mid- to senior-level leaders are building the character traits and skills they need to succeed, wherever they are in the organizational hierarchy.

  • Published November 27, 2020
  • 4 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

Bill Gentry
Bill Gentry, PhD
Former Director, Leadership Insights & Analytics and Senior Research Scientist

Bill’s research at CCL focused on examining what leaders, particularly first-time managers, can do to be successful in their work and life, and to avoid derailment. He’s the author of Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders and co-author of the guidebook Developing Political Savvy.

Bill’s research at CCL focused on examining what leaders, particularly first-time managers, can do to be successful in their work and life, and to avoid derailment. He’s the author of Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders and co-author of the guidebook Developing Political Savvy.

What to Explore Next

Leading Effectively Article
The Leadership Skills That Managers in the Middle Need to Advance

Working hard and helping others have gotten you this far in your career, but now, new skills are required in order to keep advancing.

Leading Effectively Article
How to Become a CEO: Keys to Reaching the C-Suite

If your goal is reaching the C-suite or becoming a CEO, find out first if you have the 4 key readiness components that it takes to prepare for the role and be successful.

Leading Effectively Article
Developing Leaders in Latin America: Understanding Managerial Derailment

By understanding risks for derailment, organizations can provide development opportunities for Latin American leaders that will have the greatest impact.

Leading Effectively Article
Developing Leaders in the Public Sector of the Kingdom

Government and public sector leaders in Saudi Arabia, like their colleagues in public service worldwide, face many of the same leadership challenges.

Leading Effectively Article
The Characteristics of a Good Leader

Our society is usually quick to identify a bad leader, but how do you identify a good one? We’ve found that great leaders consistently possess these 12 core leadership traits.

Related Solutions

About CCL

At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world — including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.