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In the post-Enron world of the early-21st century, integrity, and its cousin ethics, are words that get plenty of air time and even more lip-service. They’re tossed around carelessly, but the deeper, more difficult, dialogue on what integrity is and why it matters is critically absent.
Your own definition of integrity may involve nuances different from the CEO across town. But, ultimately, the quality of integrity is based on strong values. It is the most-cited response to survey questions of what employees want in a boss. This top-ranking transcends generations and cultures. Universally, people want to work for someone they can trust.
Steelcase, the office equipment manufacturer, regularly conducts surveys of the worldwide office environment. In 1991, being honest, upright and ethical were very important to 87% of Canadians, and 72% of Japanese respondents. Jim Kouzes and Larry Posner, in Leadership is a Relationship, cite honesty as the most important supervisory trait in every study they have done since 1981. Over the years no fewer than eighty-seven percent of respondents listed honesty as number one.
Integrity is the corollary to commander’s intent. It is the trait that sends the message, “You can trust me to guide you in the right direction, and to watch out for you.”
The reciprocal of trust is leadership in its most basic form. A leader says, “Here is what I want you to do, and I trust you to do it.” The follower says, “I will do it because I trust you to do the right thing.”
Those unfamiliar with the military will cite the captive employee aspect that mandates compliance by a subordinate. And yes, unfortunately there are examples of people in leadership positions in the military--and in the civilian sector--who rely on the power of their position to get the job done. Ultimately, the assigned task does get done, but usually, less effectively than in a situation in which the leader relies on positional power.
The more-enlightened leader uses influence to accomplish the objective and acts with integrity. It is only the weak military leader who resorts to, “I am ordering you to do this.” Such comments are more often seen on television than in real life. The captive employee knows the rules and will comply with them. He respects the position occupied by the weak leader, but not the leader.
People with integrity deliver on the commitments they make and accept. They do this by knowing not only their own capability and workload, but also, that of their team. They don’t over-commit. They are able to say no and explain why. When they do say yes, they get the job done. If they later find that they cannot get it done, they quickly get help and notify the appropriate people.
Too frequently, people look at the world in black and white. And that black and white is based on their values, skills, ability and experience. An activity or decision being evaluated is labeled either right or wrong--depending on the perspective of the one doing the evaluating. But, the reality is that leaders need to be comfortable with a wide gray area that allows individual action and flexibility for the subordinate.
When I coach leaders, one of the first exercises I ask them to work through is their “non-negotiables” list. This gets to one of the classic leadership conversations: Do you want those following you to follow a specified path to achieve the desired result, or do you want the desired result?
Integrity is about tangible actions for an intangible concept and is the foundational element of leadership. People do not want to follow a leader they cannot trust. If they are forced to follow that leader, they will do the bare minimum needed to get by.
Integrity dictates the same behavior, whether in public or in private. Consistency, delivering on commitments, and maintaining standards are all facets of integrity.
A bit of advice Marines often hear before going on liberty in port applies to integrity and ethical decision-making: would you want your mother to know what you are doing? For you the question may be, would you want this to be on the front page of USA Today?