Leadership: How Important Is Integrity?

By Beth Armknecht Miller, president and executive coach at Executive Velocity, Inc.

I don’t know about you, but reading and hearing about leaders who have either lost, or never had integrity, has become all too common these days. It makes us believe that perhaps there are no leaders with integrity.

As someone who tries to view the glass as half-full, I think it is the media who has created this misperception that today’s business leaders are void of integrity, morals and ethics, because every day I work with executives and business owners who have very strong values and integrity. Yet, the stories that our media chooses to disseminate never seem to promote the leaders who live and breathe integrity.

Integrity, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values (incorruptibility,) an unimpaired condition (soundness,) and the quality or state of being complete or undivided (completeness).”  Types of integrity include: integrity of character and professional integrity. Synonyms for integrity are: honesty & unity. Or, as Aristotle said: “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting in a particular way.”

It is the word “constantly” in the Aristotelian quote above and the phrase “an unimpaired condition” from the Merriam-Webster definition that makes the concept of integrity challenging for many people. While we all have values that we believe are important in our life, outside pressures and circumstances may lead us to stray from these values because of our own self-interest. It is so much easier during difficult times to think of a decision in the terms of “what’s in it for me?” versus “what’s best for the team or the company?”

One of the keys to maintaining integrity is the ability to act not in one’s own interest but in the interest of others. A great example during these difficult times are the many leaders I work with who have taken significant pay cuts over and above the cuts made to their employees. They continue to follow their values in spite of the negative impact it has on them financially. There are other executives who have deliberately not poached their competitors’ star performers, but instead have decided to wait for those performers to reach out to them, if and when the time is right for them.

There are countless examples of leadership integrity that I could share with you and very few instances of leaders who either never had integrity or chose not to develop integrity. Integrity is not something you are born with. It is something you learn and strengthen over time. It is a conscious choice you make and you have total control over. No one can make you have or not have integrity.

Leaders without strong values and constant adherence to these values fail to recognize the message they are sending to their employees: “When things get tough, our values are up for sale.” Those leaders who have the ability to stay the “values” course will reap the benefits of having employees who are motivated and loyal to their company. 

These employees will mimic the behaviors of integrity that they see modeled by their leader. They will clearly understand what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior within their team and their company.  Integrity, like the Internet, can have a viral positive effect, and the lack of integrity can quickly create negative behavior in an organization, leading to decreased performance and ultimately decreased profits.

The following are some questions you may want to ponder to determine both your level of integrity and your commitment to integrity:

  • On scale of 1-10, how would your employees rate your level of integrity?
  • How do you react to lapses in integrity by another person?
  • What positive behavior did you model recently that was later mimicked by an employee?
  • What one behavior do you display on a consistent basis that is aligned with your company values?
  • What key behaviors, other than your answer to the previous question, are necessary for you to be aligned with your company values?
  • Describe a recent behavior you displayed that was not aligned with your company’s values.
  • What words or actions from your employees will let you know that your employees trust you and your leadership?
  • How are you practicing the behaviors you want your employees to mimic?
  • On scale of 1-10, how would your employees rate their trust in you? How confident are you in this rating?
  • On scale of 1-10, what one behavior can you display more of to increase your employees trust in you by 1 point on this scale?

In summary: A leader who values and successfully models integrity benefits by having motivated and loyal employees, resulting in increased performance, especially during difficult times.

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