Almost ten years ago, Kouzes and Posner, authors of the best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge, conducted a major research study on leadership. They asked 15,000 managers worldwide to describe the characteristics they most admired in their leaders. In virtually every survey, integrity was selected more often than any other leadership characteristic — 87% of the time! The second most admired characteristic, forward-looking, was a distant second at 71%.
Integrity was chosen most often because we want to believe and have faith in our leaders. We want to believe that they are honest and truthful, and that they can be trusted — all essential components of integrity. Unfortunately, there’s been a large-scale erosion of integrity in our leaders over the last decade. We hear almost daily about leaders from many areas — business, government, non-profits, and faith-based organizations — who are successful by any objective measure, yet clearly lack integrity. So the obvious question is, does integrity really matter?
In their research, Kouzes and Posner also reported the positive impact that high integrity leaders have on their “followers.” These followers see their own core values as consistent with those of the leader and organization. They have a sense of ownership and tell others how proud they are to work for the organization. They are loyal and stay with the organization through good and bad times. And perhaps most important, they feel engaged and committed to the organization.
Let’s step back and briefly consider some different definitions of integrity. According to Webster, integrity is soundness of moral principle and character. Integrity comes from the same root as “integer,” a mathematical term meaning anything complete in itself or indivisible. Integrity is also an engineering term, meaning that a building or bridge does what it was designed to do and, when tested by circumstances, remains whole. The most salient definition from a leadership perspective: integrity means making a commitment to ourselves to hold fast to our core values, regardless of the circumstances.
Once we endorse the leadership definition of integrity, we then have the opportunity to create guiding principles. We offer the following and suggest that these principles reflect this commitment to ourselves and to our core values:
Integrity is rooted in core values, not in laws, regulations, or policies.
Integrity demands that every time we have a choice to make, we honor our core values.
Integrity means walking our talk and talking our walk.
Integrity means speaking our personal truth, while showing respect for others.
Integrity is not determined by circumstances; integrity is revealed by circumstances.
There are no degrees of personal integrity — we either have it or we don’t. Given the fact that virtually all of us want to have it, what actions can we take, in addition to following our guiding principles, to increase our integrity? Know our core values — what’s important to us and non-negotiable. Keep our promises to ourselves. Stand up for what we believe and consistently act on our values. Do what we say we will do, when we say we will do it, and let others know if we are unable to keep our commitments. Openly admit to our mistakes, make amends, learn from the experience, forgive ourselves, and move on. It’s simple, but it sure isn’t easy!
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