Thoughts on Integrity

Integrity is a word we hear throughout our professional careers. But integrity is one of the most misunderstood and misused words in organizations. Integrity is more than just being honest. Integrity also means consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. Integrity is regarded as the truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions. An individual with integrity is the antidote to self-interest. 

We live in a world where “the end justifies the means” has become an acceptable school of thought for far too many individuals. Sales executives overpromise and under deliver, all in the name of making their quarterly quota. Applicants exaggerate their resumes because they desperately need a job. CEOs overstate their annual projected earnings without the full buy-in or understanding from their team. Entrepreneurs overstate their pro formas because they want the highest valuation possible from an investor. Investors understate a company’s value in order to negotiate a lower valuation in a deal. Employees call in “sick” because they don’t have any more paid time off. In each case, the person committing the act of dishonesty told themselves they had a perfectly valid or rational reason why the end result justified their lack of integrity. Over time, such behavior - while wrong - becomes the norm.

The good news is that integrity is not just for saints and heroes. Living with integrity is within reach for all of us. Here are a few of the traits we can all work on to live with the virtue of integrity.

  1. Value other people’s time. Those with integrity value their own time so they also value the time of other people. They know you have plenty of other places you need to be and won’t hold you up. If you spend time with them, it is likely they will thank you for that as well.
  2. Give credit where it is due. Do not take credit for things you did not do. Those with integrity will always credit those who deserve it. If someone helps with a project, mention their name and give credit for their work.
  3. Act with consistency. Consistency is about being the same regardless of the situation. For example, do you know of leaders whose mood changes by the day and make rash decisions on certain days, yet calm and engaging on other days? This would be an example of inconsistency of actions and outcomes. Consistency is a choice that we make as leaders every single day, even when the situation or environment is not great. 
  4. Do not take advantage of others. Those with integrity will not take advantage of someone else. They love to build people up and help them get where they need to be. Taking too much from someone else will never be an issue with someone who has a lot of integrity.
  5. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Try to see the good in everyone. Those with integrity believe in others. They accept your word as truth until it is disproven. 
  6. Be humble. The leader with integrity is conscious of how their behavior and words impacts those around them intentionally and often times, unintentionally. So when you behave in a way that is out of sync with integrity - stop, acknowledge, apologize, and correct course. This requires humility - to ‘see’ how others are responding to you. 
  7. Build your own skill. A high integrity leader knows they’ve not figured it all out. They spend time intentionally on personal improvement such as reading, getting coached, listening to the counsel of others, participating in leadership development activities, and reflecting on how to develop character.

We are not born with - or without - integrity. Integrity is a behavior-based virtue we can cultivate over time. We can set a goal to show more integrity in everyday life and we can reach that goal by practicing the behaviors above, as well as countless others which too often go unnoticed.

Before we can embrace the notion of integrity, we need to develop the ability to intellectually wrestle with the urge to rationalize away our underlying faults and the related consequences. Intellectual ownership produces authenticity, and authenticity doesn’t tolerate self-rationalization. Our actions must mirror our words in all facets of life.

Embracing a life of integrity is a journey of progressive steps; it is not a quickly achieved destination. Living with integrity requires a great deal of personal courage. The search for integrity does not guarantee absolute certainty between right and wrong. Nor does it guarantee peace. Integrity is incompatible with complacency -- especially with institutions and cultures that oppress others by forcing their own views and beliefs upon others. Integrity is a virtue that can change society even as we allow it to change ourselves. 

If I could choose only one value to live by, it would be this: Success will come and go, but integrity is forever. Integrity means doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, whether or not anyone is watching. It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be. It is realizing we are all fundamentally flawed and that living with integrity takes conscious and continuous work. Building a reputation of integrity takes years. It takes only a second to lose.

Success defined in dollars or power is temporary. But success defined as a network of people who trust you as a person of integrity is forever.