Reflections on Leadership: Integrity

by jimowensjr

Theologians and philosopher have debated the value and definition of integrity for generations.  In some cases, those debates have centered on the eternal consequences of their divergent definitions of good and bad conduct.  Those debates are an essential part of any meaningful dialogue about integrity. However, on this side of eternity, it seems there are several practical implications about the value of the integrity of a leader.  In short, it seems integrity is the heart and soul of leadership.

But what is integrity?  For this discussion integrity can be defined as the sum of the following values:

  • Honesty: telling the truth when no other obligation to confidentiality exists.
  • Fairness: applying the same standard of conduct, expectation, and reward to everyone, including oneself.
  • Reliability:  consistently doing what you say you will do.
  • Commitment:  a willingness to sacrifice and serve others in achieving a defined goal.

While human frailty, especially the fear it includes, can make these values a challenge to “live”, genuine leaders know their “body of work” must be based on these principles.  Their teams will grant them the grace to fail if the direction of their “walk” is rooted in these values.  And for very pragmatic reasons, leaders consistently demonstrate integrity in their roles.

Without integrity in a leader teams become distracted and ineffective.  In the absence of honesty, uncertainty sets in.  Teams become cautious and suspicious.  In the absence of fairness, they become resentful of one another and their would be leader.  When leaders are not reliable apathy or “what’s the use?” will emerge.  And in the absence of commitment, resentment will deepen in to defection from the team or even sabotage of the mission.  In truth, when any of these are in short supply, productivity falls and teams underperform.  At some point when the leader turns to see his team, he realizes no one if following and he is simply “going for a walk.”

Because integrity “feels” intangible it is hard to measure.  It is rarely recognized as a performance indicator.  Yet people instinctively “know it when they see it.” While some may place little value on it, most, it seems, are instinctively drawn to leaders who approach their roles with integrity.  The evidence to support these conclusions can be found in employee engagement surveys, public opinion polls, and in the anecdotal analysis found around the break room coffee pot.  The challenge is for leaders to invest the time in self-examination.  They must ask themselves “How is my demonstration of integrity, or the lack of it, affecting my team’s performance, engagement, and loyalty?”  The wise leader will have the courage to answer the question with the honesty it requires.

One final and personal note.  When my children were growing up I told them, “Virtue is its own reward.”  That is often the case on this side of eternity.  Integrity is frequently the more difficult path, at least in the short run.  And it can be met with resistance by those of smaller heart, mind, and character.  Live it any way!

Keep the faith.