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The Relevance of Integrity in Leadership Published: Sunday, September 25, 2011 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Whenever we discuss leadership in executive sessions, a substantial proportion of the participants will argue that leaders need integrity to function effectively. They find support for their arguments in the works of many researchers and authors. Gardner for example, argues that when lead without integrity, people sense the leaders’ “duplicity and become guarded” and describes integrity as “honestly matching words and feelings with thoughts and actions, with no desire other than for the good of others.” Gardner (1993: 33) argues that leaders need to demonstrate trust and reliability because people “cannot rally around a leader if they do not know where he or she stands.” Other participants argue that talk about integrity is nice but that most leaders follow a more Machiavellian view. By this they mean that in the end only results matter. Machiavelli himself put it quite eloquently when he wrote that a prince “should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and a religious man.

The fact is that Integrity is a foundational element of business leadership.  The way we conduct ourselves with respect to our word is critical to how we show up as a leader.  There are a few different ways to interpret the word integrity.  Sir Thomas More described integrity as “The state or quality of being entire or complete; wholeness; entireness; unbroken state”.   Another slant as found in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary is that integrity is a Moral soundness; honesty; freedom from corrupting influence or motive; - used especially with reference to the fulfillment of contracts, the discharge of agencies, trusts, and the like; uprightness; rectitude. 

Due to the actions of a few greedy CEOs, coupled with tenuous business conditions in many companies, the issue of integrity and trust is back in the spotlight. Leaders of organizations are the carriers of the corporate culture, and even a small gap between leaders’ expressed values and their actions causes a culture of integrity and trust to suffer. Since integrity and trust boil down to an issue around “culture” and “people,” change agents are being tasked with helping companies rebuild work environments founded on high trust and integrity.

Without integrity, other qualities or achievements will be corrupted and abused. When integrity is not a primary standard for all behaviors, is not highly valued for its own sake, or is considered contingent, impractical or unimportant or made into a joke or a nonissue, we can observe the following well-rationalized manifestations:

  • Charisma, showmanship, and public relations gimmicks are substituted for leadership.
  • Ability to manipulate people, and situations is rewarded over creating honest communication, sincere relationships, and substantive value.
  • Looking good becomes more important than being authentic.
    • Different perspectives, viewpoints or beliefs are “righteously” invalidated and made wrong.
    • Authenticity and candor are lacking, or when present, are often criticized as unrealistic or naive.
    • Short-term performance increasingly becomes more important than long-term growth and sustainability.
    • Competition becomes redefined as “beating the other guy,” rather than a mechanism to bring forth our best.
    •  Respect for human dignity is ignored and reduced to “taking care of me and only me.”
    • Vitality and productivity are replaced with pretense and busywork.
    • Compromise degenerates into mediocrity rather than flourishing as a synergy of expanded viewpoints.
    • Striving for excellence is replaced with insatiable demands for perfection.
      • Vision and leadership wither to a focus on how to have control over other people.
      • Compassion becomes too expensive, impractical, or “not our business.”

Without integrity, our character is replaced with political expedience. Concerns about power, money, and status dominate and control our actions and life. We lose balance and perspective. Our compassion for and appreciation of the dignity of every human being deteriorates into insincere, self-centered, closed and unloving attitudes and behaviors. Without integrity, our dreams and vision lose their compelling energy. Our goals become mere mechanical objectives without juice. Our passion for life disintegrates into a compulsive, anxiety-ridden, insatiable need for success at any cost or simply deteriorates and dies. When integrity ceases to be a primary standard, the true costs are beyond measure. Developing social skills and bottom-line abilities can be an important adjunct to, but never a replacement for, acting with integrity.

The benefits of integrity are numerous. First, leaders who live their lives with integrity have a clear conscience – they can sleep at night. It does not mean there are not difficulties, trials, problems or tough decisions, but it does mean the leader has done all that they can to look after the well being of others. People want to work with leaders who are trustworthy and credible. When this happens, they are significantly more likely to be proud to tell others they are part of the organization, feel a strong sense of team spirit, see their own personal values as consistent with those of the organization, feel attached and committed to the organization, develop a sense of ownership and self-responsibility.

Copyright 2011 QBS, Inc.
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