Excellent leaders share certain things in common. They may be skills such as effectively delegating or communicating with empathy. However, they also display certain traits, none more essential to successful leadership than Integrity.
So, what is integrity? Let’s start with some definitions, beginning with the “old reliable” Oxford English Dictionary: “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”. Or how about Merriam-Webster: “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility.” You see where this is going; certain threads like moral principles, values, and honesty emerge. But there’s another important perspective captured by one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes: “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” What this adds is the fully internalized locus of the motivation to do what one believes is “right.” The moral compass, the values, and the honesty stem from an individual’s core principles and they shape a wide range of behaviors, including what decisions one makes (and how one makes them), how one views and treats others, and of course how one leads.
One of my early encounters with the concept came in the form of values-based leadership as taught at the U.S. Army War College. From an initial stint as Visiting Professor to serving as the first-ever fully civilian Chair of one of the core teaching departments, I spent 14 years at Carlisle Barracks, and I got to know the “Army Values” very well and, more importantly, see them in action. (See: https://www.army.mil/values/) In “Army Values” terms integrity means: “Do what’s right, legally and morally. Integrity is a quality you develop by adhering to moral principles. It requires that you do and say nothing that deceives others. As your integrity grows, so does the trust others place in you.”
Other encounters with the concept included: Leading a non-profit organization that helped prepare people to run for and hold elected office, starting up and running a construction and development company, and working with international investors. I also consulted on leadership and strategy in law enforcement, higher education, and national and international security. I learned from others and from experience both how to lead and how to teach leadership. From all of that I learned that among the seven or so core traits of effective leaders, integrity was the foundation.
Why the foundation? Grounded in principles that are reflected in decisions made and actions taken (consistently doing what those core principles require), it is the bedrock for building trust in any relationship, team, or organization. You can’t fake integrity because it’s revealed in actions and their relationship to words spoken. To say or assert one has integrity is not enough; actions truly speak louder than words. Although internally rooted, it’s the external recognition of it that builds trust from others. Successful leaders know they need others to understand both what they did or decided and why, especially when others don’t agree with it. The most complementary words I have heard in my roles as leader generally come in this form: “I still don’t agree with your decision, Robin, but I know why you made it….I respect that, and will do my best to help us succeed.” That kind of trust encourages others not simply to follow leaders but to help them lead and help the organization succeed. Experimentation and innovation go hand-in-hand in successful organizations, and that requires taking risks which in turn requires trust.
Surveys conducted of executives concerning the traits they look for in developing future leaders consistently place integrity at the top (ahead of interpersonal/communication, initiative, and ability to motivate others). Why? Because it’s impossible to be a consistently effective leader without the trust that grows from people knowing that the leader is someone with genuine integrity. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we can play to our strengths and work on our weaknesses. But if a person’s weakness is as fundamental and foundational as integrity, the leadership will be either ineffective or still worse destructive (for individuals and the organization).
Question: How do you know—or strive to know—whether you have that integrity? Answer: Ask yourself! For example, try asking yourself whether you are being open and honest with others. Better still, ask yourself if you’re being fully open and honest with yourself. I actually learned this from a highly respected and trusted lobbyist. Yes, a lobbyist! But a lobbyist from the days when to be successful and effective the one thing you could NOT be was a person who lacked integrity and was instead inclined to “play fast and loose” with laws and ethics. Those people almost always got themselves and the people, companies and interests they represented in lots of trouble. Why? Because of something else I’ve learned and taught: All things legal are not necessarily ethical; and even some things ethical are not always legal. Perplexing to say the least! When asked about this huge gray area while presenting in the non-profit I mentioned—to individuals who wanted to run for and hold elected office—this very wise gentleman answered with something I will never forget: “If you have to ask yourself the question…you probably already know the answer.” Think about it! Are you trying to talk yourself into or out of something? Are you trying to rationalize it? Is there another voice—or should there be other voices—in that conversation? Integrity will let you know if it’s there or if it isn’t, but as a leader you have to ensure you are giving it a chance to speak. Asking yourself such questions needs to be part of your personal decision-making process.
Finally, self-awareness and self-honesty are also key elements of integrity. Knowing that we all make mistakes or missteps and cannot possibly be right all the time is important, yes; but owning, acknowledging, and accepting them are also signs of principled, genuine integrity. That awareness, honesty and humility help individuals succeed in what Steve Jobs observed leadership is: “…inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.”