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The one characteristic that makes great leaders

Never forget that when you make honesty a key value, you generate the trust that is needed to truly make you a great leader.

6 min read



The FBI spends a great deal of time, effort, and money in training agents to be great leaders because agents need to be able to land on their feet when confronted with the unknown.

They also need to know how to get people to trust them with their lives, persevere when challenged with adversity and always come out on the right end of a terrorism case. Great leaders understand how to keep moving forward when roadblocks threaten their success.

The one characteristic that makes FBI agents great leaders is honesty. Lack of candor will get an agent fired quicker than any other mistake or transgression.

It’s drilled into agents that they always represent the FBI and that their actions are a reflection of the organization. By making honesty a key value, the public understands they can trust agents to do their job.

For entrepreneurs and business owners, finding new and unique ideas is essential, but the ability to successfully execute these ideas is what separates dreamers from great leaders. When money is tight, stress levels are through the roof and instant success is a long time in coming, it can be hard to always take the higher moral ground.

Honesty is more than simply admitting a mistake. It also implies humility, conscientiousness and an admirable ability to feel guilty when you are less than honest in your dealings with others.

Here is a closer look at the three components of honesty to better understand why honesty is the one characteristic that makes great leaders:

1. Humility

Please remember that being humble does not mean being a chump.

It should not surprise anyone that studies have confirmed that business leaders from both large and small companies who possessed humility as a core trait were rated as more ethical and trustworthy than their counterparts, as well as able to elicit better employee engagement and job performance.

If you aspire to rank among the great leaders, you need to be humble. Your business will only be successful if your team can come together and problem-solve. By being humble and stepping back, you are creating space for others to contribute. Unless you are intellectually humble, you are unable to learn.

How to make this work for you

  1. Share your mistakes as teachable moments — by being honest and admitting your own mistakes, you make it OK for others to make a mistake as well.
  2. Engage in dialogue, not debates — don’t get caught up in trying to prove your point of view. Instead, use this as an opportunity to learn about the way other people think.
  3. Forget being wishy-washy — humility indicates that you are confident enough to make a bold statement and then step back to see if you were right.

2. Conscientiousness

There’s a staggering amount of research linking conscientiousness with success and great leaders. A National Institute of Mental Health study found that conscientious men earn higher salaries. The National Institute on Aging also found that conscientiousness is linked to income and job satisfaction.

While other traits like extroversion can predict outcomes in some situations, studies have found that conscientiousness has as much impact on a leader’s success as extraversion. Conscientious people tend to be more dependable and achievement-focused, traits that help them rise to the top.

Conscientious people become great leaders because they do certain things better than others: They’re better at setting goals, working toward the, and persisting when things go wrong.

Remember the conscientious kids in your classroom? They were the ones who sat in their chairs, didn’t complain and didn’t blame their teachers when they didn’t receive a top grade. They had the mental toughness to manage their emotions, thoughts and behavior in ways that would set them up for success.

How to make it work for you

  1. Balance relationships and work — conscientious people are often more task-oriented than people-oriented, so make sure to balance the two equally.
  2. Delegate with care — conscientious people can and do deliver. If one reports to you, resist the temptation to burn them out by overburdening them with work.
  3. Provide structure — conscientious people tend to work best when there are clear rules, high ethical standards, and a clearly articulated vision.

3. Guilt acceptance

The personality trait of guilt acceptance taps into a person’s healthy levels of guilt. Unhealthy guilt looks more like shame; shame is feeling bad about oneself while guilt is feeling bad about one’s behavior.

A leader’s ability to feel guilty about their wrongdoing has been found to be a direct predictor of success. Researchers found that MBA students who scored higher on guilt-acceptance were rated as more effective leaders by their former supervisors, peers, and clients.

Great leaders should seek out those who are prone to admitting their guilt when hiring and promoting their staff. People who are honest and anticipate that they would feel bad about their behavior after doing something wrong are better able to get along and get results.

How to make it work for you

As a leader, you are often placed in situations where you are either hiring or promoting an employee. Ask these things:

  • Please describe a time when you made a mistake at work.
  • How did you feel when this occurred?
  • What did you do?
  • What, if anything, did you learn from the experience?

Never forget that when you make honesty a key value, you generate the trust that is needed to truly make you a great leader.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. LaRae is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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