Integrity must be at the core of who we are as leaders if we’re to successfully inspire confidence in our teams. Because leadership is fundamentally about human relationships, integrity must be the very cornerstone of any leader’s foundation. In every aspect of our lives we depend on the integrity of others, and others do the same for us. We count on stores to give us fair prices, on students to do their own work, and athletes to play by the rules. That’s why it’s such a big deal when there is a breach of integrity like a public lie or the discovery someone we trust isn’t playing by the rules. A leader who lacks integrity is headed for disaster; leaders who lead with integrity are the ones we truly value.
The origin of the word “integrity” is a great place to start the conversation in the context of leadership. The root of the English word, integrity, is the Latin word integritatem, meaning “soundness” or “wholeness.” A person with integrity, therefore, is solid and whole. They aren’t “flimsy” or “two faced”: what you see is what you get with them. A leader with integrity is the same person on Monday morning they were Sunday morning, and they don’t tell different stories to different people.
We believe in integrity so much, various professions and institutions create their own system of ethics as a measure of the group and members’ integrity. For example, like many colleges and universities my alma mater Texas A&M has an Honor Code we expect all Texas Aggies to embrace when they enter the University. The Aggie Code of Honor is: An Aggie does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do. In that short sentence is the community’s shared ethic: honesty and trustworthiness and a refusal to allow individual members of the community to compromise the integrity of the whole. An Honor Code is a visible representation of the kind of cadet we expect Texas Aggies to represent to each other and the world.
Likewise, professions like civil engineering and medicine have their own systems of ethics. For engineers, it’s “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Of course the most famous and probably the oldest professional ethic is the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Systems of ethics need not be so formal, it can be as simple as a discussion about expected behavior between leaders and team members during the annual evaluation process. Professional ethics set standards so the public can trust individual members, and so the group can deliver value to the public with honor.
At a basic level, what these systems of ethics accomplish is a shared sense of what “integrity” means. Furthermore, an individual who enters a community with a code of ethics voluntarily adopts the groups’ ethics and definition of integrity as his/her own. In doing so, the individual becomes an integral part of the whole, building a shared sense of mission and belonging among members of the team. There’s often no one around to “police” a leader when there’s a tough call to make. The leader people respect, the one who creates an environment of integrity, will always make the right call no matter who’s around and what the personal cost. He or she will simply hold their personal honor and professional ethics above any temporary cost. Those are leaders people will willingly follow through thick and thin.
Obviously, leaders have a significant responsibility to set the example of sound professional ethics and personal conduct. But a leader’s responsibility doesn’t rely only on an explicit system of ethics or an honor code, there’s plenty of societal norms requiring honesty without writing down a formal system of ethics; but when there’s an explicit system of professional ethics a leader’s responsibility is even more crucial. Nothing creates cynicism among a team faster than a leader who either violates, or allows others to violate the trust of the group, particularly when there’s a public system of ethics. Leaders must create an environment where integrity is the expected behavior. They cannot allow a breach of integrity to fester; such a breach must be dealt with immediately and decisively. Like mildew, a breach of integrity not addressed becomes a rot that infests the entire organization in short order. The fix for a breach of integrity by a team member is similar to cleaning mildew…sunlight and a scrub brush in the form of transparency and decisive action.
Integrity is fundamental to any leadership discussion because without it, there can be no trust between leader and team or between team members themselves. With integrity as the cornerstone, teams can achieve great things together.
1. Write your personal system of ethics.
2. Name the one leader you admire most for his or her integrity.
Share your progress with us on Twitter using hashtag: #GeneralLeadership — we’re looking forward to hearing from you!