Are you as Honest as you Think You Are? The Leadership and Character Conundrum

Are you as Honest as you Think You Are? The Leadership and Character Conundrum

By Jack Zenger – Contributor to

When senior executives are asked in a casual conversation what they most value in a subordinate, the most frequent answer is “honesty” or “integrity.”  Because of the consistency of this response from senior executives, as our leadership development firm Zenger Folkman constructed a competency model that would be broadly applicable to most organizations, we planted character (honesty and integrity) squarely at the heart of our model. When we have discussed this model with countless groups of corporate leaders, no one has ever questioned the logic or wisdom of that decision.

Given that, we might assume that senior executives had some relatively clear definitions and accurate ways of measuring this extremely important leadership quality. You would also assume that they would hold everyone in the organization, themselves included, to a very high standard on this leadership competency.

We have noticed however, as we now have data on tens of thousands of leaders, that a puzzling phenomenon emerges about the evaluation of character.

The Source of our Data

First, let us describe how we collected our data. In the course of administering our 360-degree feedback instrument to tens of thousands of leaders, we ask respondents to use a 5 point scale to describe a leader’s competencies.  These competencies include traits such as:  technical expertise, problem solving skills, practicing self-development, driving for results, establishing stretch goals, communicating effectively, inspiring and motivating, building relationships, developing others, providing strategic perspective and championing change. These surveys are anonymous and heavily safeguarded to encourage individuals to give open and honest feedback.

Each competency is measured by three or four items. The respondent uses a five point scale with the following definitions:

1-   Needs significant improvement—poor performance  

2-   Needs some improvement— inconsistent performance

3-   Competent- good performance

4-  Strength—Top Quartile

5-  Outstanding Strength—Top 10 %

After collecting data on some 35,000 leaders, here is the pattern that has emerged:

The Evaluation of Character

Character Evaluation 75th percentile score: 90th Percentile score:
Peers 4.3 4.5
Direct reports 4.4 4.65
Self 4.3 5.0
Manager 4.65 5.0

While the scores from peers and from direct reports (subordinates) are extremely close, an interesting phenomenon occurs with the self-scores and the manager’s scores.


We found that more than 80% of the time leaders rate themselves between a 4 and a 5 on character.  Only 17.5% of the time we see a 3 (which is defined as good performance, competent, and what you’d expect from someone in the position.)  Only 2.5% of the time do we see leaders score themselves with a 2 (inconsistent behavior, needs some improvement) and we’ve rarely seen a leader report a 1, signifying poor performance where character is concerned.  Almost everyone seems to believe “I’m extremely ethical and honest.”

Manager scores

To be perceived as one of the top tier leaders in their organization, people needed to be at the 90th percentile on a handful of competencies. To be at the 90th percentile on Character, from the manager’s perspective, required perfect scores on all the items pertaining to character.

Note, however, that the managers’ evaluations seem highly disconnected from peers and direct reports.  The manager’s 75 percentile rating for the character of a subordinate is at the same number as the 90th percentile given by direct reports.  Again, the 90th percentile for the manager’s evaluation of the character of a subordinate is the top possible score of “5” on all items.  This is a full half-point higher on this 5 point scale than the 90th percentile score from direct reports.

The Evaluation of Other Competencies

Compare these outcomes with ratings on another competency such as “Interpersonal Skills”

Interpersonal Skills 75th Percentile         90th percentile
Peers 3.95 4.4
Direct Reports 4.3 4.6
Self 4.0 4.4
Manager 4.2 4.55

For this competency, the self-scores and the manager’s scores are very comparable with peers and direct reports.  While to be at the 90th percentile on character, both the individual and the manager had to mark every item as a “5”,  to be at the 90th percentile on all other competencies , only required a mix of 4’s and 5’s with more 4’s than 5’s.    Overall, for the 16 competencies we regularly measure in our standard instrument, the 90th percentile is between 4.3 and 4.5.

While the majority of leaders act with honesty and integrity, these results  suggest that our self and manager ratings may be too optimistic. We even have analyzed reports from organizations where serious allegations have been lodged against senior leaders, and have found that the same high honesty scores appear.

Character Makes a Difference

We continue to strongly believe that character makes a big difference.  It is an extremely important attribute of a leader. (You can get a full copy of the whitepaper we’ve authored on the topic here.) We look forward to hearing your opinions as well, and perhaps we will cover those points in a subsequent column.

The newest book from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, How To Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying your Strengths, premieres in August and is available for preorder from Amazon.

About Jack Zenger

John H. “Jack” Zenger is the co-founder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a professional services firm providing consulting, leadership development programs and implementation software for organizational effectiveness initiatives. He is considered a world expert in the field of leadership development, and is a highly respected and sought after speaker, consultant and executive coach. Jack has authored or co-authored hundreds of articles on leadership, productivity, learning, training and measurement. He is the co-author of four books on leadership, Results-Based Leadership, (Harvard Business School Press, 1999) voted by SHRM as the Best Business Book in the year 2000, the best selling The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders (McGraw-Hill, 2002) and Handbook for Leaders (McGraw-Hill 2004). In 2009, Jack released The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate (McGraw-Hill 2009) and the following year released The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow (McGraw-Hill 2010). He is the author of two books on productivity improvement: Not just for CEO’s – Sure-Fire Success Secrets for the Leader in Each of Us (Irwin Professional Publishing, 1996); and Making 2 + 2 = 5: 22 Action Steps to Boost Productivity (Irwin, 1997). He is a co-author of three books on teams, including the best selling, Self-Directed Work Teams: The New American Challenge (Irwin Professional Publishing, 1990), Leading Teams (Irwin Professional Publishing, 1993) and Keeping Teams on Track (Irwin Professional Publishing, 1996).

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