Integrity appears at or near the top of every list of desirable leadership traits. We claim it as the mantle of the leaders with whom we agree and decry its absence in those with whom we disagree.
You would think a behavior and characteristic so widely accepted as important could be universally defined.
So go ahead—take a stab at it. Integrity is . . .
It is not as easy as you thought, is it? And that is the challenge: You can’t live or lead with integrity – or expect others to do so – 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.
Legendary singer and songwriter Willie Nelson was asked if his life philosophy had changed at the age of 75. Willie responded, “No. When I go back and listen to those early songs I’ve written and listen to the ones I’ve written yesterday, I still have basically the same beliefs that everything is good.” That, too, is integrity.
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? Let’s break down Webster’s definition in practical terms and apply it to leadership. Think of them as the Seven Cs of Integrity-Driven® Leadership:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Commitment: Commitment requires two things: a promise and an involvement. The person of integrity commits or pledges to act in a specific manner. The promise obligates involvement. As the pig said to the chicken at the suggestion that they treat their caretaker farmer to a breakfast of ham and eggs, “This requires your participation. I, on the other hand, am making a commitment.”
- 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. From a physical sense, it is an example of the fight/flight decision. The implication holds true from a moral perspective. The person of integrity faces and makes the difficult choice even when the outcome could be painful or unpopular.
- 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 what Webster defined as a “sound moral principle.” It 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.
That’s Interesting—So What?
It took about 420 words to explain the definition of a word we all believe that we know and understand. And, that’s the point—we don’t all share the same definition of a word that is universally considered an important trait for all leaders to have. 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 lead with integrity.
So here is my definition of integrity: Completeness, honesty, and transparency in thought, communication, and action.
Living and leading with integrity means being accountable and responsible to yourself, and 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.
“I know it when I see it.”
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used those words to define when pornography crosses the line to obscenity in 1964. Since then, they have become the phrase of choice when describing a subjective fact, event, or characteristic.
So what does that have to do with integrity and leadership?
Like Justice Stewart, we know integrity in others when we see it. The important question is: Do others see integrity in us?