The Most Important Leadership Characteristic

In their landmark leadership book The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner share that the most important leadership characteristic is credibility. Based on extensive research over two decades, they boldly claim that “more than anything, we want leaders who are credible. People must be able to believe in their leaders.”

To Kouzes and Posner, credibility is the overarching leadership characteristic that describes a leader who is honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent.

In other words, credibility includes character issues. In fact, in every survey they conducted, honesty was selected as the most necessary leadership characteristic. People long for there to be alignment between what leaders say and how leaders live, or as the authors state, “Consistency between word and deed is how we judge someone to be honest.” While credibility of character is essential, credibility also includes issues of competence—namely, the ability to set a direction, inspire people, and guide people and teams effectively.

Of credibility they write:

Credibility is one of the hardest attributes to earn. And it’s the most fragile of human qualities. It’s earned minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, month-by-month, year-by-year. But it can be lost in very short order if not attended to. We’re willing to forgive a few minor transgressions, a slip of the tongue, a misspoken word, a careless act. But there comes a time when enough is enough. And when leaders have used up all of their credibility, it’s nearly impossible to earn it back.

The Book of Proverbs teaches us “A good name is to be chosen over great wealth;

favor is better than silver and gold” (Proverbs 22:1). We can lose both riches and credibility, but if we lose our credibility, we lose much more.

Because leadership is often about change, about setting a direction and moving to a new future, leaders take risks and often make bold moves. But wise leaders don’t risk their character. They don’t make bets with their character. For by doing so, they put all of their leadership at risk too.