The trite saying that honesty is the best policy has met with the just criticism that honesty is not policy. The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy.

-Robert E. Lee

My experience is that most executives believe they demonstrate Honesty in their interactions with others. The problem, we act as though Honesty is a “static principle” yet it is frequently defined differently from one individual to another.

I remember sitting in on a conference call with the Vice President of Sales in a Los Angeles-based company. My job, as his strategic coach, was to ascertain why he is not trusted as the leader. This universal assessment was jeopardizing his future with the organization. There seemed to be a confusing equation at work…. The more Jason booked sales; the lower his trust sank in the organization.

Here I sat in the company’s conference room observing Jason interacting with one of his team. Then, he introduced me to the caller as: “An efficiency expert brought in by the company to review corporate processes.”

Well, I’m thinking a bit of the trust issue just may have surfaced! It seemed Jason was a bit loosey-goosy with the truth. Later I opened our coaching session with: “Why did you introduce me as something I am not? Why not simply introduce me as an outside consultant?”

Wow, did I touch a nerve, an explosive one!

It turns out that he’d studied integrity and Honesty—even done a doctoral paper on the topic while in college. His deeply embedded viewpoint was, “I wasn’t lying because it didn’t hurt anyone.” That was his definition of Honesty, and he was sticking with it.

After a heated discussion, I asked, “If someone overheard your description of my assignment, and they knew my role in the organization, is it possible they would have construed your introduction as dishonest? Is it possible that by their definition—not the fine-tuned, researched definition of Honesty you have constructed—they may perceive you as untruthful? Will they feel you are a leader they can trust?” Thus, Jason’s “Aha” began. It was one that had him becoming a valued employee not simply because of his sales abilities, but also because of his relationships.

This encounter was my first clear-cut awareness that Honesty isn’t a set definition rather culture and individual experiences plays a part. It is for this reason that you never can assume one size fits all rather you must create clarity over and over again regarding what Honesty is to you.

How do you measure up in Honesty?

This question is not a lightweight as Honesty and integrity are a sought after quality in business. As Warren Buffet, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway reflected: Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it, it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.[1] 

So, please do not answer the question: How do you measure up in Honesty? casually. I have never met an executive who did not believe they were honest and yet, to a large extent, Honesty is determined not by you rather by those who are interacting with you. Most people know when they experience Honesty coming from someone and they also know when they are not experiencing it. Since Honesty is one of the primary factors in building trust; and trust is the number one feature in strong leadership, getting a true measurement on this facet of your character is essential. Such an assessment can only occur by being open and self-aware. The Honesty component of leadership is particularly critical as the old, vertical, power-based leadership style loses its relevance. Success  is  you and the healthy relationships you develop with others.

What is a “just right” Honesty focus?

Honesty emanates from an internal foundation of integrity. You are someone who can be counted on to speak the truth with compassion even in the face of dissension. And it has an even broader sense to most people. It is you presenting yourself in a genuine and sincere way, being without pretense, taking responsibility for your feelings and actions.[2]

What is a shift you can make to engage your Honesty?

  • Honesty Is Not Learned; It Is a Choice: It is you choosing to speak the truth or you choosing to fudge a bit or even a lot. Throughout my life, I’ve created the habit of looking at myself in the eye every night with the question: “Am I pleased with my actions or is there something I need to clean up?” I’m thankful that often I have what I would term a clean day that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone liked me or thought I was the best. It means my actions were in integrity with who I’ve chosen to be. Sometimes—more often than I would like—the eyes staring back at me in the mirror reveal something that does not make me proud. I then need to address the issue promptly with the person or persons. It is my belief that this is the primary way we thrive in this strenuous, tough, chaotic, highly-competitive world called business in Honesty and as a person of integrity.

Can you overdo Honesty?

Yes, Honesty has a dark side to it. I am not telling you to lie. Never that! Yet, there will be times when Honesty simply isn’t the best option. Speaking the truth, when you are stepping on the feelings of others, and it will not lead to healthy new action, is simply unproductive bullying. Complaining about your co-worker’s lack of work production—even though it may be honest—rarely leads to positive recognition by the senior level leaders of your organization.

I just returned from walking along the river pathway to let this email simmer in the background of my mind…. A life’s synchronicity moment occurred.

I observed an excited little boy all alone with his fishing pole slung over one shoulder, and his little tackle box clutched in his hand. He was jumping out of his skin in anticipation.

As he arrived at a particularly juicy, first-class fishing hole, his shoulders slumped. He looked up the path behind him and said out loud… really out LOUD, “Aw, there’s a bunch of people playing in the water. They’ve ruined the fishing!”

Then, coming around a bend in the path at a much slower pace, I spotted a woman. It soon became clear she was the little boy’s mother, as she said: “You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking out loud. Sometimes it is just plain rude.”

Do you know your strengths?

Understanding your character strengths at a deeper, more honest level will not only add value to your day, but it will also display a powerful role modeling behavior for your peers and employees.

Are you finding these emails on Via Character Strengths interesting? Are you ready to identify your strengths in your business and life? I would love to support you in this journey. The process of introspection is the only way to create a life and career that is engaging, fulfilling and fun for YOU.

If you have not discovered your Via Character Strengths as yet, take 15 minutes and go to VIA Survey to receive your profile.


You will find value in this four-minute video by Aine Donovan, Adjunct Associate Professor of Tuck School and Executive Director of Ethics Institute of Dartmouth entitled What is Integrity?


[1] From: Recruiterbox, What Warren Buffett Wants to Know Before He Hires You,

[2] 2013 Via Institute on Character.

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