4 quarter

By Michael DeGrosky

Trustworthy leaders, in addition to being honest and ethical, possess a combination of wisdom, judgement, and competence.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about character, particularly the character of leaders. It’s been an eventful time since I retired in June. I’ve wished fond farewells to retiring old friends, seen off associates moving on to new opportunities, talked with close colleagues who I will miss as I open my next chapter, and have been doing a little coaching and mentoring. All have me thinking about the character of the people I most respect and admire, the values and beliefs that guide their decisions and actions, their North Star.

People who know me best know that the highest compliment I pay is to call someone a person of character or one of the good ones. Those are people whom I find most credible and in whom I have unquestioned trust and confidence. On reflection, I’ve come to realize that I value in potential leaders a collection of character traits including authenticity, benevolence and compassion, competence, drive and sense of purpose, honesty, humility, integrity, openness, perseverance, and trustworthiness. People who inspire me, people to whose leadership I would commit, possess some combination of these character traits.

However, character is a subjective construct and I wanted to know how my thoughts on character and leadership compare to the research and the reasoning of some great leadership thinkers. That took me back to the books as well as to recent research literature. As expected, I didn’t discover some universal list of desirable character traits for leaders. After all, we’re talking about the personal, intangible and ethical aspects of personality that define who people are. I was just happy that my list of traits making you “one of the good ones” looked pretty good, and is well supported in the literature. 

Other elements of character captured either in the research literature or the thinking of leadership philosophers included resilience, competence, confidence, universalism, transformation, and forward looking or vision. I can’t argue with any of these. Honestly, they’re all things that contribute to fine leaders and great leadership. However, when it comes to what makes people admire their leaders, two universal aspects of character stood out for me: trustworthiness and integrity.

We know that trust is essential to leadership and trust flows from trustworthiness.

Bottom line: people willingly follow only those people they believe are worthy of their trust. Honesty is a part of trustworthiness. In fact, from their extensive research, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, of The Leadership Challenge Model fame, have concluded that the characteristic most admired in leaders is honesty, that the leader is both truthful and ethical. But trustworthiness transcends honesty and ethics. Trustworthy leaders, in addition to being honest and ethical, possess a combination of wisdom, judgement, and competence. I know some people think “Competence, part of trustworthiness?” “Really?” But let’s be honest, people trust people who get stuff done. We follow people who are clear about their values and beliefs, but only if they have the competence to execute on those values and beliefs.   

It is said that integrity is a foundational moral virtue and the footing on which character is built. The author and lay theologian C.S. Lewis is credited with saying “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.” Lewis’s statement reflects the perspective that sees acting with integrity as being honest and truthful, and I’ve seen his perspective offered as a practical shorthand for acting ethically. However, just as trustworthiness transcends honesty, for me, so does integrity. Honesty is being truthful, sincere, and free of deceit. Integrity has a broader meaning encompassing honesty, ethics, and the practice of aligning one’s conduct with one’s values, choosing to live in accordance with certain principles and to act on those principles; it’s consistency between word and deed and the connection between ethics and action, between saying and doing, between talking and acting. 

For me, people with integrity are not only clear about their values and beliefs but they have the skills to enact their beliefs and confidence in their ability to execute effectively. To frame this around a hot topic in the fire world, nearly every organization has messaging around diversity, equity and inclusion. However, at the personal level, people act with integrity when not only do they publicly message a commitment to DEI but, out of the public eye, their recruitment, hiring, and retention moves are transcending the status quo and advancing those values in their organization. Integrity is doing the right thing (versus just saying the right thing) whether it is to one’s advantage or disadvantage.      

I am inspired by people who are compassionate, competent, driven by a sense of purpose, open, and who persevere against challenges. I can’t argue that resilience, confidence, and transformative vision aren’t also essential to effective leadership as well. However, without trustworthiness and integrity, none of these other traits is possible. A final thought: every moment of every day, people continuously assess your character, both consciously and sub-consciously, deciding whether or not to commit to your leadership. May you be a person of integrity.  May you be one of the good ones.  

Mike Degrosky


Mike DeGrosky recently retired as the chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forestry Division. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.