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The many ethical lapses that have sunk organizations illuminate the importance of integrity in top-echelon executives. And that's not just an impression influenced by front-page headlines. Research by the Center for Creative Leadership, which hasn't made the news, shows that integrity is the key criteria in determining success by top executives.

Interestingly, however, integrity is not the key criteria for success by middle managers according to performance ratings. For them, the study indicates that social intelligence – understanding the people and situations around them – is key.

And this means many organizations, when promoting their best middle managers to the executive suite, may be putting their weight behind people whose integrity has not yet been tested – and may even be missing.

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"In the middle of the organization, integrity is not important while at the top integrity is crucial," said Bill Gentry, the Greensboro, N.C.-based senior research associate who led the study, titled the Irony of Integrity.

"If integrity has nothing to do with performance success at the middle level, you can have trouble when the individual gets to the top. It can blow up in your face."

Rather than looking at weaknesses, the researchers decided to investigate strengths, focusing on four character elements that have repeatedly been shown to be important: integrity, bravery, perspective, and social intelligence.

Leaders with integrity walk the talk. They are consistent, honest, moral and trustworthy. Their deeds match their words. Leaders without integrity can't be trusted – by their colleagues, their bosses or the public – and inevitably that will lead to problems.

Bravery is also vital for leaders; they don't shrink when they face a threat or difficulty. It can be lonely at the top – or any level for leaders – and they need the courage to take the lead on unpopular actions.

Top-level executives need a broad business perspective to understand the environment in which the organization is competing. Middle managers need perspective to engage effectively in change and strategy formulation.

Social awareness is the awareness of the motives and feelings of yourself and others around you. Because managers collaborate with others, this is a vital facility.

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The CLC research involved comparing those abilities in many executives who had taken the organization's Executive Dimensions 360-degree tests, which includes character evaluations by direct reports and evaluations of performance by bosses and boards of directors.

All four traits were important, and related positively to performance, which is not surprising. But when the researchers probed deeper to determine relative importance of the four strengths – and looked at different levels of the organization – they found the results surprising and disconcerting.

Social intelligence was the most important factor for success in the middle of the organization. Middle managers must take the vision of those at the top of the organization and communicate it to their subordinates. They have pressures coming at them from all sides – direct reports, colleagues in management, and people above them in the hierarchy. They need the ability to get along, read other people, and smooth over differences.

But at the top of the organization, integrity and bravery were more important. "The two may go hand in hand. Integrity is needed when deciding what action should be taken. Bravery is needed to take actions that might be unpopular," the study noted. But the most vital of the two character strengths at the top was integrity.

If you're a middle manager, you should work to improve your social intelligence. If you're at the top, bravery and above all integrity must be a concern. "All eyes are on you at the top of the organization all of the time. Integrity is the most important characteristic. So make sure you walk the talk," Mr. Gentry said.

Organizations need to be mindful of the distinct differences between the two levels of leadership when they consider staff members for promotion. A middle manager with terrific social intelligence skills may well flop when promoted if he or she lacks integrity.

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If you're a middle manager with an eye to promotion, be sure you behave with integrity. "You may not see the importance of integrity right now," he said, "but if you want to be successful in top levels of your company, why not work on it now?"

But companies also need to make sure that people build their integrity before reaching top management. Mr. Gentry said top executives should talk repeatedly about the importance of integrity and monitor for it in performance development. Make sure integrity is talked about in performance reviews. "If people are mindful of it, they will act with integrity," he said.

Also, don't overrate your own integrity level, particularly if you're at the top. The researchers found that top executives rate their own integrity much more highly than their subordinates do. Middle managers, in turn, rated their own integrity more closely to the evaluations by direct reports. "Integrity is a potential blind spot of serious concern," the study warns.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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