Why Personal Honesty In Leadership Is So Critical To Your Success

Personal Honesty; Photo of a lighthouse

You may think it obvious that personal honesty in leadership is essential. How effective is a leader going to be who doesn’t give you back the right change? Or who lies, isn’t fair, or is deceitful?

But this understanding of “honesty” is a very thin understanding of it—too thin to help us discover why your leadership isn’t producing the results you want.

If your team is falling apart; if there is backbiting, bad feelings, and disarray within your team; if people ignore you; if you don’t know where you are going; if crises pop up out of nowhere and knock your projects off course; if—the list goes on—I would immediately suspect that you are not being fully honest as a leader.

Let’s dig deeper into personal honesty to learn why it is essential to your leadership.

What is honesty?

This word has so much baggage associated with it that I never use it in my coaching. But since it’s the word most people use, let’s use it here. However, we need to be clear about what it means and in doing so, I’m going to conflate honesty with authenticity and integrity, since most of us do, in any case. Here is a quick definition of each:

Honesty means being free of deceit and untruthfulness.

Authenticity, as I use it in coaching, is the alignment between your internal and external states. You are authentic when the “you” you present to the world is identical to the “you” you are for yourself. You are inauthentic when you hide your true feelings, beliefs, or intentions behind a façade or persona that you present to others.

Integrity, again as I use it in coaching, is the state of being whole and undivided. That is, when all the different aspects of your life—physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, social, career, etc.—are fully functioning and in balance, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Integrity, in this sense, includes being honest and adhering to moral and ethical principles and values.

Powerful leaders are honest in five areas

Being honest in each of these areas is crucial—not just for your leadership, but for all aspects of your life.

Straight with yourself (authenticity)

Authenticity is one of the overused power words of the self-help industry. Simply put, authenticity is the alignment of your internal and external selves. That is, who you are for yourself is who you present yourself to be to the world. Saying, for example, “I really like this,” when you don’t or bragging about your exploits when you really see yourself as a failure or saying “I love you,” when you really want sex are classic inauthenticities.

However, the (universal) problem with authenticity is that most of us don’t have a clue who we are for ourselves. We believe our own inner pretenses or inauthenticities are, in fact, true, and because we believe them, we think we’re being authentic when we act them out in the outer world.

Perfectionism—a common characteristic of my high-performing clients—is a good example. Doing things perfectly is often cover for a pervasive but unarticulated feeling of not being good enough. The perfectionism that such a person demands, both of themselves and others, is dishonest in the sense that it’s in service of an inauthenticity (not being good enough).

Common leadership inauthenticities are imposture syndrome (I’m faking it), arrogance (I’m better than), and dominance avoidance (I don’t want to dominate, so I won’t tell anyone what to do).

You want to assume that you are being inauthentic to yourself in ways that you aren’t seeing. The way to spot an inauthenticity in action is to notice where in your life you are disempowered: where you can’t make things happen, you are fearful, you can’t say what you want or need to say, or you feel boxed in—forced to do things that you don’t think are the right things to do.

Inauthenticity—not being straight with yourself—reduces your power and freedom. Authentic leadership is effective leadership.

Straight with reality (related to reality)

Being straight with reality is a lot tougher than it sounds. It means being able to distinguish between what happened and the interpretation or meaning that you give to what happened. Examples: someone cuts you off in traffic (what happened) and you think he’s a jerk (interpretation); your direct report questions you (what happened) and you think he’s not respecting you (interpretation), or; your boss tells you to do something (what happened) and you think she’s dominating you (interpretation).

The more you live in your interpretations, the less straight you are with reality. The less straight you are with reality, the less effective your leadership will be. It is essential to understand that your interpretation of an event (“he’s a jerk,” “he’s disrespecting me,” “she’s dominating me”) is made up—it’s an illusion.

Believing that your interpretations are “true” is a fundamental and frequently disabling dishonesty.

Since humans always interpret reality, you must learn to put your interpretations to the side, determine what is real, decide what results you want to achieve, and then take an action that will secure those results. For a more thorough explanation of how to be related to reality click here Results Model.

Personal honesty requires responsibility

Taking responsibility is accepting—owning—that you generate the results you produce in your life. Do not mistake responsibility for fault or blame. Effective people, that is people who achieve what they set out to achieve, always take full responsibility for their life situation. Ineffective people are those who deflect responsibility onto others or onto their circumstances.

If you have a problem; if the team is not responding—own it. The buck stops with you. Ask the hard questions, make the difficult decisions, and take the appropriate actions.

If at any point, you shirk responsibility, your team will pick up on it and lose its trust in your leadership and, following your lead, will blame each other for mistakes and poor results.

Grounded in your essence

“Essence” as I use it in coaching is your true self. Your essence, however, is often (usually) barricaded behind a welter of inauthenticities. When your inauthenticities drive your behavior, you are usually behaving in service of being right, of winning, of dominating, of being better than, of status, or acquiring material possessions. When you are coming from your essence, you are being open, loving, vulnerable—and powerful.

Being “honest” when you are being inauthentic usually results in diminishing another (or yourself), creating divisions between people, being grasping, or being selfish. Being “honest” from essence enrolls others, even if what you have to say may difficult to hear. It’s the difference between “This report isn’t any good” and “Let’s see how we can improve this.”

Personal honesty won’t support your leadership if it isn’t founded on your essence.


I have put communication last because honest communication depends on you being honest in each of the four previous concepts. You cannot be honest in your communications if you are not authentic, straight with reality, responsible, and grounded in your essence.

What you say may feel honest to you (“you make me angry,” “this report isn’t any good”), but when your communication is based on an inauthenticity, it is being produced from a deeper, often, unconscious dishonesty. Yet even after you’ve mastered these other four challenges, there remains the equally difficult task of mastering the skill of communicating powerfully.

How do you communicate your mission so that you align your team? How do you ensure that each team member is saying what they need to say? How do you tell a team member that their work isn’t adequate in a way that engages instead of diminishes them?

Being straight in your communications requires courage—the courage to hear what you don’t want to hear, to feel what you don’t want to feel, to be open and vulnerable, and to take responsibility for what you say.

Personal honesty, authenticity, and integrity in your communications are essential to your leadership.

Leadership requires personal honesty

Leadership is far more difficult than management. Management requires efficient systems; leadership requires powerful relationships. Powerful relationships can only be built on a solid foundation of personal honesty. There is no other way.

If you’re tired of your team missing deadlines, producing substandard work, bickering among its members—give me a call. We can get this straightened out.