Introduction Conducting rigorous scientific inquiry within the bounds of research regulation and acceptable practice requires a principal investigator to lead and manage research processes and personnel. This study explores the practices used by investigators nominated as exemplars of research excellence and integrity to produce rigorous, reproducible research and comply with research regulations. Methods Using a qualitative research design, we interviewed 52 principal investigators working in the United States at top research universities and the National Institutes of Health Intramural Research Program. We solicited nominations of researchers meeting two criteria: (1) they are federally-funded researchers doing high-quality, high-impact research, and (2) have reputations for professionalism and integrity. Each investigator received an initial nomination addressing both criteria and at least one additional endorsement corroborating criteria 2. A panel of researchers and our research team reviewed the nominations to select finalists who were invited to participate. The cohort of “Research Exemplars” includes highly accomplished researchers in diverse scientific disciplines. The semi-structured interview questions asked them to describe the routine practices they employ to foster rigor and regulatory compliance. We used inductive thematic analysis to identify common practices. Results The exemplars identified a core set of 8 practices and provided strategies for employing them. The practices included holding regular team meetings, encouraging shared ownership, providing supervision, ensuring adequate training, fostering positive attitudes about compliance, scrutinizing data and findings, and following standard operating procedures. Above all, the use of these practices aim to create a psychologically safe work environment in which lab members openly collaborate to scrutinize their work and share in accountability for rigorous, compliant research. Conclusions Researchers typically receive limited systematic training in how to lead and manage their research teams. Training and education for principal investigators should include essential leadership and management practices and strategies that support doing high-quality research with integrity.