Interpersonal Leadership: Trust-Building
“Honesty: The Leader’s Credibility
Test ”
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack®
Vol. 7.2 – Trust-Building

Honesty: Honesty, as a basic characteristic of leadership,
surprisingly is high on the list of expectations of people about their leaders.
“Honesty as the leader’s credibility test” is the
claim of researchers and authorities; it is one of small cluster of traits essential
for trust-building. Honesty does not have to do only with telling the truth;
it also has to do with how we live, what do, and how we treat others.

This is not new; it has long been true. What was meant by the old saying of
one person about another: “His word is his bond”? It means you can
count on him to keep his promise; she will speak only the truth about someone;
he is believable; she will do what she says. And what if today others said of
you: “This person practices honesty in dealings with other people
passing the honesty test, which is, ‘Can I trust this person?’”

1a: free from fraud or deception: LEGITIMATE, TRUTHFUL, honest plea; 1b:GENUINE,
CREDITABLE, PRAISEWORTHY; 4A: marked by integrity; 4b: marked by free, forthright,
and sincere expression: FRANK, INNOCENT, SIMPLE. Synonym: see UPRIGHT

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

1. Honesty and Credibility

  • Abraham Lincoln–An Honest Man: Lincoln sought to build
    strong alliances at the highest possible levels of government; most noteworthy
    is his June 16, 1858, challenge:

    “A house divided against itself cannot stand . . . Our cause
    must be entrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends–whose
    hands are free, whose hearts are in the work–who do care for the results.”

    Part of the Lincoln myth is that Lincoln was fair, trustworthy,
    sincere, straightforward, of sound moral principle, and like George Washington,
    truthful. He even had the nickname “Honest Abe”
    resurrected for the 1860 presidential campaign. Without question, honesty
    is one of the major qualities that made him a great leader. Honesty and
    integrity formed the architecture of Lincoln’s leadership. Because
    his integrity was sincere may be one reason he was so admired in his lifetime.
    –from pp. 51-52, Lincoln by Phillips

  • Honesty Lives in a Fine Neighbor: When I use the phrase
    “lives in a fine neighbor,” I am referring to the relationship
    of honesty to other characteristics of leadership credibility. A review of
    the research reported by Kouzes and Posner, “honesty”
    is what people admire the very most in their leaders; it is the essential
    test of credibility.

    • A nationwide survey of 1500 managers produced 225 characteristics and
      attitudes believed to be crucial to leadership, of which 3 were far beyond
      all others: (1) integrity–leaders are truthful, are trustworthy, have
      character, have conviction; (2) competence–leaders are capable, productive,
      efficient; (3) leadership–leaders are inspiring, are decisive, provide
    • In two nationwide surveys (1987 and 1993, one of 2600 top level managers),
      of what people most admired in leaders, four crucial attributes stood
      out: (1) honesty–85%, (2) competency–67%. (3) forward-looking–62%,
      and (4) inspiring–58%. Their analysis included other traits often associated
      with leaders who build trust: fair-minded, straightforward, dependable,
      supportive, caring, and cooperative.
    • Honesty is absolutely essential to leadership–that a leader worthy
      of trust will be truthful and ethical.
    • Of all the attributes of credibility, there is one that is of greatest
      importance–being seen as someone who can be trusted, who has high integrity,
      and who is honest and truthful. The credibility check essentially is the
      question: “Do I trust this person?”–see pp. 11-18 of Credibility;
      and, pp. 15-17 of The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes & Posner.

2. The Scripture Teaches Honesty

  • James 3:2-“We
    all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he
    is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”
    Zondervan Commentary: In the Greek text this verse begins with gar
    (“for”), indicating an explanation for the previous statement.
    The teacher’s responsibility is weighty because the tongue is the most difficult
    member of the body to control. To say that “we all stumble” is
    not merely to declare that everyone makes mistakes (RSV). The literal meaning
    of ptaio is “to stumble,” but in both biblical and extra-biblical
    writings it was also used figuratively to refer to acts of sin (cf. 2:10).
    . . . Since sins of the tongue are hardest to avoid, anyone who could control
    his tongue would surely be able to “keep his whole body in check”–i.e.,
    keep it from being used as an instrument of sin.

  • Deuteronomy 25:15-16: “You
    must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long
    in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests
    anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”

    Zondervan Commentary: The Lord detests those who deal dishonestly (v.
    16); but, on the other hand, when people follow his ethical standards, he
    will reward them with long life in the land he is about to give them (v. 15).

  • Luke 6:38–Jesus’ message to us is to be openly and
    completely honest in all our dealings with others; and that it will be reciprocal:
    “Give, and it will be given to you. A good
    measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into
    your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

  • Phil.4:8–Honest behavior is in a cluster of other characteristics
    to be the passion of Christ’s followers; “Finally,
    brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever
    is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent
    or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

  • In Other Texts: Honesty is often expressed as fairness,
    straightforwardness, honor, dignity, nobleness, and “of good standing.”

3. Practicing Honesty in Trust-Building

Think about many ordinary things we do every day that express the level of
our honesty. Reflect on your leadership practices. Trust-building through honesty
begins with small things, are cumulative overtime, and have an impact on the
larger things of your life. Just so, distrust and emotional isolation is built
by dishonesty. In all the dimensions of your leadership and within the life
of the congregation, honesty is the credibility test. Assess your practices
and choose your efforts at improvement. As you review these suggestions, keep
in mind the channels of flowing water through your life may be wide open; others
may need you to clear out the obstructions:

  • Remember, your practice of honesty is mostly about consistency between
    words and deeds, between what you say you believe and what you actually do.
  • DWYSYWD–“Do what you say you will do.” In Credibility,
    Kouzes and Posner declare that is basically what honesty is all about.
  • Keep your promises, make your word your bond; keeping promises is the bedrock
    of your credibility within a congregation.
  • Do not promise to do what you cannot do, or do not intend to do; do as
    you promise in small things, so that in the big things you will be trusted.
  • First, live the truth; what we mean is to be truthful about the message
    you speak and live.
  • Second, tell the truth; do not lie or tell as true what, in fact, is not.
  • Be forthright, straightforward, that is, clearly understandable; do not
    have a secret meeting to make decisions before the deacons or team has its
    stated meeting.
  • Do not mislead, be deceitful, or deceptive; misinformation or disinformation
    will only hurt your ministry and the life and work of the congregation.
  • “Please forgive me” is the most honest and acceptable way to
    recover from an oversight, a mistake, or wrong on your part.
  • Stick with the facts; do not exaggerate or embellish.
  • Do not take credit for the achievement of others; pass along to others
    praise for their accomplishment or group contribution.
  • Do not pass along rumors or damaging hearsay; you might even speak out
    against such a practice.
  • Do not give insincere compliments; learn the value of a nonjudgmental silence.
  • Pay your debts in a timely fashion, or when necessary, make mutual arrangements.
  • Do a full day’s work for a full day’s pay; you may be your
    own timekeeper, but others are watching.
  • Be ethical in your business dealings; your reputation around town is based
    on your consistent honesty.

Closing Reflection:

“Another sign of moral purpose in a leader is truth. The degree
of truth in our lives and organizations critically affects our present and
future relationships.”
–Max DePree in Focus, p. 95

Close this window 

© 2007; hosted and copyrighted by
Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership