To be trusted and lead effectively, leaders must walk their talk. In order to do that, they must have a talk to walk. Values are your talk, and living in accordance with them through your behaviour is your walk. So what are the most important values for leaders to follow?

Research by leadership experts Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner helps to answer this question. Their Leadership Practice Inventory is the world’s most popular leadership assessment tool. Their research shows that among the 30 statements by which they measure leadership, a lower than average score on ‘Treats people with dignity and respect’ has the most detrimental impact on leadership trust and credibility.

Essentially, this means that if we don’t treat people with dignity and respect, we disqualify ourselves from being exceptionally good leaders. We also destroy any possibility of psychological safety, which is a prerequisite for high-performing, healthy teams with a growth mindset. According to Timothy Clark’s extensive research, respect is absolutely essential for psychological safety.

Kouzes and Posner conducted further research around the question, ‘What do we most admire in leaders?’ A massive survey identified 225 leadership values and characteristics, which Kouzes and Posner refined to a top 20. They then conducted a survey six times over a 30-year time span in which they asked the more than 100 000 participants to choose the characteristics they most admired and were willing to follow in leaders.

The table below abridges the results of the most recent study, completed in 2017.

Characteristics of admired leaders

Norms Characteristic Norms Characteristic
28 ambitious 84 honest
40 broad-minded 17 imaginative
23 caring 5 independent
66 competent 66 inspiring
31 cooperative 47 intelligent
22 courageous 18 loyal
39 dependable 17 mature
22 determined 10 self-controlled
35 fair-minded 32 straightforward
62 forward-looking 37 supportive

© The Mindful Leader

As you can see, four qualities stand out from the rest, the highest being honesty, followed by inspiring, competent and forward-looking.

Therefore, the two most important qualities for leaders to develop are respect and honesty. Unfortunately, leaders often don’t live up to these values. The research firm Willis Towers Watson surveyed 32 000 people in 26 markets and asked them to respond to three statements. Here is what they discovered:

Do we trust our leaders?

Statement assessed Agree (%)
Senior leadership behaves consistently with the organisation’s core values. 56
I believe the information that I receive from senior leadership. 54
My immediate manager acts in ways consistent with his or her words. 57

Source: adapted from Willis Towers Watson, GWS Global Report 2016.

Another research study performed by DataPad involving 2100 respondents in the UK gauged how much employees trusted their leaders. The survey asked employees the same question on ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ in relation to their executive leadership, heads of department and immediate line managers: 999 people responded to the question on their CEOs; 1264 responded to the question on their immediate managers. Of those who responded to the question ‘Do you trust and respect your CEO?’, 30 per cent responded ‘not at all’ and another 39 per cent responded ‘a little’. Immediate managers were trusted ‘a lot’ by only 48 per cent of those who responded and ‘a little’ by 36 per cent; 16 per cent of immediate managers were not trusted at all.

The beginning of your leadership journey is defining clearly who you are, what you stand for and what your deepest values are — in short, your leadership philosophy. And as research shows, respect and honesty are the foundational values for effective leaders.