Wholehearted Leadership Opinion: The importance of integrity

Leaders with integrity behave in a principled manner, no matter who is watching

Credit: Official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maj.-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower at his desk in 1942

Do you hold yourself to a high ethical standard because it’s the right thing to do?

Integrity is “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty,” according to Dictionary.com.

In research on leadership, integrity is consistently rated as one of the most important character traits of a respected leader. It is often considered a given—the basis upon which all other leadership traits are built. After all, if you can’t count on a leader to consistently conduct himself or herself with high ethical standards, and with honesty, how can you trust them?

Dwight Eisenhower said, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity.  Without it no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in the army or in an office.”

I remember when I was in university at a leadership retreat, I heard, for the first time, a speaker mention integrity. I approached him after his presentation and asked him what integrity was. He replied, “It’s kind of like a big loaf of bologna—no matter where you slice it, you get the same thing.”

I know, you’re probably thinking what I was: “What does that mean?”

We discussed it further, and I began to understand that someone with integrity conducts themselves with the same high ethical standards, no matter where they are or who they are with. Someone with integrity lives a consistently principled life no matter what.

I had an interesting example of a lack of integrity this week…

While driving my car to an appointment, I noticed that I received an email. I made the poor decision to quickly look down at my phone to read the email. I glanced back and forth from the road to my phone. I know, I know, it was a poor decision…

At that same time, I happened to look in my rear-view mirror and saw a police car behind me. A sense of dread began to overtake me. I quickly put my phone down to make sure I was incredibly focussed on the road and didn’t drive a smidge over the speed limit. I knew that with the police watching me, I needed to be absolutely faultless in my driving.

And that’s when it dawned on me: I was driving without integrity. I behaved one way when someone was watching, and another way when no one was watching.

Integrity is behaving in a consistently principled manner, no matter who is watching.

Integrity is holding oneself to a high ethical standard because it’s the right thing to do.  Integrity is intrinsically motivated. It is self-imposed. If someone requires an extrinsic motivation to lead and live with integrity, then they don’t have integrity.

Leaders with integrity consistently conduct themselves with high ethical standards regardless of who is watching. If no one is watching them, they behave the same as if everyone was watching. Leaders with integrity don’t try to see what they can get away with.

“Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”  –C.S. Lewis

When I was in my early 20s, I drove to Blaine, Washington, to buy some new runners.  An hour later, I was crossing the border. I had a choice: would I declare the shoes and pay duty, or would I wear them and lie about why I was in the States? A simple question went through my mind: “How much are you willing to sell your integrity for?”

Would I sell my integrity for $20 in duty? Thankfully I didn’t, and that lesson stuck with me when, years later as an entrepreneur, I dealt with much larger numbers.

Success without integrity really isn’t success at all. Those with integrity keep their word, even when it hurts. Integrity is making values-based decisions, not decisions based on personal gain. No one is perfect; we all make mistakes. But those with integrity admit their mistakes and do what they can to right the wrong.

Leaders with integrity are more concerned about their character than their reputation. Your reputation is merely who others think you are, but character is who you really are.

Integrity is paramount for good leadership—it’s a given.

David MacLean empowers CEOs, entrepreneurs and executives to dare greatly in his role as B.C. best practice chair for The Executive Committee Canada (TEC). David also writes and speaks on Wholehearted Leadership: inspiring, encouraging and equipping leaders to harness their most valuable asset—their HEART. You can reach him at dmaclean@tec-canada.com.