How do you define integrity? Is there an absolute definition? Or, do you find yourself quoting the phrase made famous by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it”?
We know that it appears at or near the top of every list of desirable leadership traits. It is the essential ingredient for building and sustaining trust with others.
Go ahead—take a stab at it. Integrity is . . .
It is more difficult to define integrity than you thought, isn’t it?
And that is the challenge: How can you live and lead with integrity if you can’t clearly define it?
For many people, integrity is synonymous with ethics. That’s a critical piece of it, but there is more to it than that. A computer program has integrity when it does what it is designed to do without errors. A building has integrity when its construction meets all the required standards. Art has integrity when it is pure and consistent with the artist’s vision.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines integrity as, “the quality or state of being complete; wholeness; the quality or state of being unimpaired; and being of sound moral principle.”
Still a little unclear? Perhaps breaking down Webster’s definition in practical terms will help. Seven themes emerge when the dictionary definition of integrity is applied to how we live and lead. Think of them as the Seven Cs of Integrity:
1. Clarity: Individuals who act with integrity are clear on their values, beliefs, and priorities. Like a fine gemstone, light shined on this person is not scattered or diffused by impurities and inconsistencies. Clarity of purpose and principles are evident in every action, decision, and communication.
2. Constancy: Faithfulness, fidelity, stability, steadfast, and unwavering—these are the words that define the person who possesses constancy. She is unwavering in her dedication. He is steadfast in his beliefs. They are faithful to the commitments and promises they make. There is a fine line between constancy and rigidity. Constancy—and by connection integrity—do not shackle you to a set of beliefs forever. It requires thoughtful examination to determine the truth.
3. Consistency: Closely tied to constancy, consistency transforms beliefs into action. The constancy of our beliefs is demonstrated through the consistency of our actions. Consistency promotes trust and provides a sense of stability to others.
4. Congruency: Congruency in geometry means that two objects are roughly the same shape and size. Applied to people, it means there is consistency between what we feel on the inside and what we do on the outside. Congruency takes the concept of consistency to a deeper level. You can be consistent without being congruent. But, you cannot be congruent without being consistent.
5. Commitment: Commitment requires two things: a promise and an involvement. The person of integrity commits or pledges to act in a specific manner. A promise is merely a statement of intention without active engagement and action.
6. Courage: Courage is the willingness to face or deal with anything that is dangerous, difficult, or painful rather than avoiding it by making another choice. The person of integrity faces and makes the difficult choice even when the outcome could be painful or unpopular.
7. Concern: Concern when used as a verb means to show interest or regard for a person or thing. Its opposite is indifference. The concern we speak of here is the ethical part of the definition of integrity. The person of integrity is concerned with understanding and doing what’s right. Concern also requires consideration of others’ interests rather than a sole devotion to our own.
It took over 350 words to explain a concept that we all believe that we know and understand.
That’s the point. We don’t all share the same definition of a word that is universally considered an important trait for every leader in every situation. You might believe that integrity is consistency. I might see it as congruency or courage. We would both be right, and neither of us would be any closer to a common understanding of what it takes to live and lead with integrity.
So here is my definition of integrity: Completeness, honesty, and transparency in thought, communication, and action.
Integrity means being accountable and responsible not just to yourself, but to also consider the implications of actions and decisions on others—ethically, morally, and physically. It means being clear, constant, and consistent in the beliefs and values for which you stand. Integrity means that there is congruency between internal beliefs and external actions. And it means that you have the courage to do what’s right even when it is not convenient or no one else is looking.
Integrity Requires All Seven Cs
Tyrants often cloak themselves in the mantle of integrity to justify their actions. They may even demonstrate most of the traits described above. But make no mistake, tyrants are not leaders. They merely fake integrity to further their own cause.
There is a reason that a cubic zirconium is considerably less valuable than a diamond. Both shine brightly on the surface, but the fake is quickly distinguishable from the original upon examination.
At the end of the day, our reputation for integrity commands respect from and earns the trust of others. It is an essential ingredient for leading change and delivering results in a chaotic and cynical world.
Integrity is determined by the presence of all seven factors – especially concern for doing what is right and doing so for the betterment of all. It is how we set ourselves apart in the hearts and minds of followers.