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Key Words:  Trust, Integrity, Behavior, Ethics


You will see the story in the chapter on Responsibility where two young boys pick up money dropped by an elderly man.  Initially, they were running away with the money until one found within himself the moral obligation, the honesty necessary to stop and subsequently convince his friend what they were doing was wrong.


Without needing to ask most of us realize the difference between right and wrong.  We know if we are being truthful when speaking with someone or if we are cheating on a test.  Being honest is a sense of moral obligation to oneself as well as others.  In this section we will examine honesty as a critical foundation of leadership.  We have also made the decision to include integrity.  While the two have different meanings they are so closely linked it is important and meaningful to place them together.

As is the case with many characteristics of leadership the matter of “common sense” often rules.  For instance, when looking at honesty you know if a fellow student or friend tells you he or she took something from a store it is theft, illegal, and dishonest.  Occasionally young people will attempt such events and if not caught will brag about the accomplishment.  Sometimes they keep it up until caught even expanding to larger thefts.  There are several possible outcomes of such behavior ranging from a lifetime of crime to “getting the message” and grasping the point that theft usually does not pay.  Regardless, you know that this is a person you cannot trust until their conduct clearly suggests they have abandoned their path of thievery.

Notice use of the word “conduct.”  This represents a cardinal component of leadership – behavior.  People often say whatever they need to gain an advantage, appease someone, or somehow influence an outcome.  But it is their behavior that really matters.  Thus, when you see someone consistently committing something wrong, illegal, or otherwise dishonest that behavior clearly tells you they are simply not an honest person.

Would you consider such a person someone you would likely follow?  The answer is clearly no.  Why?  Because the consequences are potentially extremely serious and most young people don’t wish to find themselves in jail.  Doesn’t that sound pretty straight forward?

Well, for most of us it is.  Serious crime is one thing but consider the next example.

You have an upcoming test in one of your most difficult subjects, science.  Further, the teacher has a reputation of being really tough on marking.  You have been studying hard and are doing your best.  The night before the test you get a text message from your close friend who tells you he has a copy.  You learn it was taken from the teacher’s desk by another student, photocopied, and given out to a few others.  Your friend tells you he is going to stop by your house and give you a copy.  What do you do?

Is this any different than stealing?  Well, yes and no.  Sure, there are differences in the degree of dishonesty and the potential ramifications – jail versus perhaps suspension from school.  Sure the latter is more severe than the former but is it still an act that is honest? Of course it isn’t. This is the reason that honesty is one of the cardinal characteristics of leadership.  You cannot be honest “most of the time.”  It is like saying a girl or woman is “kind of pregnant.”  You either are or you are not.  It is that simple.  And that is why integrity is an important part of this chapter.

It is absolutely critical you maintain your integrity in all you say and do.  Without that ability you will not be seen as honest, trustworthy and a person others will pay attention to much less follow.  Others must be able to trust you.

Just think about your own experiences.  For instance, if your friend Heather who borrowed your favorite CD says she doesn’t know where it is and three days later while visiting her you notice it on her bedroom dresser you are going to question her honesty.  Sure, she may just have forgotten she left it there but it certainly raises a red flag in your mind.  In the future you will probably think twice about letting Heather borrow something.  Do you want others to think that way about you?

Now, what about the proverbial “white lie?” What is a “white lie,” when is it used, and is it acceptable or not.  This is somewhat of a challenge and often dependent on an individual’s view.  However, it is absolutely not to be confused with telling the truth when confronted with the importance of sheer honesty and the consequences thereof, legal or otherwise.  So let’s see if we can make the distinction and be very clear on this matter.

A so-called white lie is when a person says or explains something that is not true relative to themselves on how they specifically feel or believe.  For instance, the often used example is saying something kind about a person’s appearance – a woman’s hair or a man’s tie – when you feel it is either inappropriate, doesn’t look good, or otherwise you do not like how it looks.  This is usually your personal opinion.  Sometimes it might be the way the majority of people might believe as well.  However, it is critical to understand the difference between one’s personal opinion and fact!

For instance, the number of boys and men wearing earrings has dramatically increased in the past ten or so years.  Yet, many older people have a hard time accepting that type of appearance and a 65 year old may not like it whereas a 15 year old may think it cool or at least not have a big issue with another male wearing earrings.  Thus, if a 65 year old tells his or her grandson they like his earring[s] it may be more not to hurt his feelings than a genuine statement of approval.

Therefore, for that older adult, it is not being completely honest with the grandson with respect to the earrings but that white lie probably maintains a sense of comfort and stability within the family.  If the grandson felt his grandparents did not like or love him then it could result in negative consequences that outweigh the issue of earrings.  Again, it is critical to understand that this type of “lie” is a social, personal expression.  It is not a statement of fact!

It remains important to understand we are speaking of something that is not wrong or illegal.  Honesty in this case is a matter of an individual saying something that is based on personal opinion, not on fact.

So are there times when one’s personal opinion should be expressed avoiding the use of a “white lie?”  Absolutely.  While it is never easy to say something to another person that might be perceived as negative it can often be very important in saving someone from personal embarrassment.  For instance, imagine going to a friend’s house to pick him up to go to a school dance.  You see he is wearing a jacket that simply does not go with his slacks.  You know the girls will probably not say anything but will laugh at him behind his back.  What should you do?

If you true friends you certainly don’t want to see someone embarrassed.  Thus, you must find a tactful way to let him [or her] know that something is just not in their best interest. It is impossible to provide a single, simple answer to every potential situation but there are some general guidelines you can use to help you through such circumstances.

For instance, you can often ask a question that will bring the subject to the fore.  You might ask something such as; “Kevin, is that a new jacket?”  Frequently, the response will be; “Yea, what do you think of it?”  Or, “No, I’ve had it for a while.”  Either way it introduces the subject and puts it “on the table” giving you an opening to then follow up in a sensitive manner. Teenage girls are more likely to consider there is something wrong because of their mature intuition at that point in life while boys can sometimes be a little dense.  [Sorry fellas!]

Regardless, a good, solid friend will find a diplomatic way to suggest an alternative to avoid embarrassment for someone.  And, in truth, most people will see it exactly as that, a friend helping another friend.  It is actually an expectation good friends should have of each other.  So, when done with sincerity and sensitivity a comment designed to help another will usually be taken that way.

Having said all that, and understanding the difference between “white lies” and the honesty of factual matters one must also consider whether or not he or she is still comfortable with something that is not true even when based on personal opinion.

Occasionally, someone will say something to another that is totally tactless and insensitive.  While the personal honesty and directness cannot be argued it is usually inappropriate in society to say things that are clearly going to be hurtful to another.  Entire books are written on issues dealing with societal norms so we will not go down that path here.  Just suffice it to say that any comment you make toward another that is intended to hurt that person mentally is simply wrong.  That is especially so when one considers matters such as hazing or bullying in school.  People who engage in such activity often have problems of their own and are engaging in this type of behavior to compensate for their own insecurities. If you are one who is bullying others with verbal insults you should examine and seek help for your own problems.

So hopefully, we have clarified the difference between honesty in its pure sense and the personal honesty where one sometimes finds a need to be tactful and sensitive in dealing with others feelings.  There is a HUGE difference and it must be absolutely understood!

Now, let’s say you have not been honest on a matter of importance.  What are the consequences and what do you do?  The answer is simple although complicated in its understanding.

The straightforward answer is you always tell the truth!  Yes, tell the truth!

But, that’s going to get me into trouble you say.  Well, perhaps, although not always.  However, when all is said and done it is still the best result and we will explain why.


Telling the truth is not always easy.  However, it is the right thing to do and a good leader tells the truth, is honest, and always does the right thing!  It is probably best to provide several examples to illustrate the point.  Keep in mind here we are not talking about dishonesty in terms of breaking the law, committing a serious crime [murder, assault], into drugs, or similar elements where one needs an attorney, has certain rights under the law, and so forth.  This is common, everyday stuff that you will instantly recognize and understand.  [Hopefully, by doing the things we have written about you will avoid any of the more serious issues noted above.]

Example #1

You and your friend Josh are driving to school and he says; “Hey man, did you complete that assignment for European History?”  You hear the words and your heart sinks, you break into a cold sweat as you realize you had completely forgotten.  You are in deep trouble!  It was an honest mistake in that you had been in school the day the assignment was given.  You were to write a significant paper on the impact of Tallyrand on French history. However, you got sick that evening – three days ago – and today was your first day back.  What do you do?

Example #2

Recall from the Chapter on RESPONSIBILITY your friend Mike asked you to give him a ride home because the battery on his car was dead.  Meanwhile, Kevin wanted to shoot some hoops and, after originally committing to Mike, you sent a text saying you could not give him a ride.  Later he learned you played basketball instead.  He comes up to you in the hallway and asks why you told him one thing and then went to play basketball.  You are uncertain if he knows the truth.  What do you do?

Example #3

You have a part-time job at the local supermarket.  As you are about to leave for the day the manager, Mr. Spears who has always admired your work ethic and skills asks you to change the bar code reading on a certain cereal that has just gone up in price.  Shortly after the conversation your cell phone vibrates and you recognize the caller as your girlfriend Amy.  She tells you she urgently needs a ride and can you pick her up right after work.  You say yes and then hurry to change the bar code reading.  In your rush you inadvertently enter the wrong price resulting in a cost to customers at checkout that is 45 cents less than what it should be.  In fact, it is even 20 cents less than the previous cost.  The following day Mr. Spears calls you into the store office and tells you one of the clerks noticed the variance.  He asks what happened.  What do you do?

So let’s be very clear on this matter of honesty.  You cannot be honest on a “part time” basis.  Either you are or you are not an honest person.  However, you must remember – one of the most critical characteristics of a leader is honesty.  It is vital to your personal success in anything you do in life.  If you are seen by others as dishonest you will most likely fail.  [Just consider all the prominent corporate and sports figures caught cheating on taxes, expense accounts, or similar items.  They usually fall from grace and often simply drop from public view.]