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How Integrity Benefits Everyone

By Frank Burroughs

In his recent article on this blog, Chris Hitch did an excellent job of articulating the origin of the word Integrity. He correctly traced it back to its Latin roots implying wholeness or completeness. In its popular use, it usually is thought to mean acting in an ethical way, but that is not truly part of the original meaning. The two concepts are linked in the fact that acting in alignment to a set of ethical principles can demonstrate integrity. But integrity is not contained in a particular set of values. Thus, in the purest sense, some of history’s greatest villains can be correctly described as having high integrity because they acted in perfect alignment to their beliefs.

Each culture and organization will have a set of values and ethics (written or implied), so the question for a leader in any country or company is whether he or she can align to those and act in perfect concert at all times. Simply said, do the leader’s words and actions match the beliefs? In the vernacular, do they “walk the talk”? The concept of wholeness or completeness lies in the congruity of beliefs and actions. Acknowledging that no one will be perfect in this alignment, we will consider the practical case of a leader who almost always manifests a wholeness of belief and action. What benefits accrue to the leader, the follower, and the enterprise?

Behaving as you believe creates a predictable consistency that has many benefits. When a leader is predictably consistent, those who follow no longer guess what the reaction to a given outcome will be. They can anticipate the reaction and then judge whether the actions to bring that outcome are the best ones. This leads to a more autonomous work environment.

Contrast this to a leader who is less predictable. Followers cannot anticipate very well the link between action and reaction. This leads to lower levels of autonomous behavior and little self-direction. It is simply less risky to do what you are told. This becomes especially critical in enterprises that depend on innovation (almost all do!). Innovation requires risk-taking and risk-taking flourishes when there is predictable consistency in the leader culture. In short, integrity creates a more autonomous work environment and creates a favorable environment for risk-taking and innovation.

Being a leader in any organization carries with it significant challenges. In addition to the legitimate ones, leaders often add to their burdens by creating illegitimate ones. Common, especially among newer leaders, is the need to be perfect, never saying or doing the wrong thing. Not only is this a very heavy burden, but over time it creates in the leader a guarded or defensive nature that will ultimately affect the other attributes a great leader must possess. In any profession, the need to be perfect at all times will produce even less perfection than otherwise.

Integrity is the leader’s best friend and antidote to this problem. When a leader displays predictable consistency, a breach of the belief-action expectation occurs in a context. That context allows those offended to put the offense in perspective. They may simply think “Mary is just having a bad day….I can move forward knowing who she really is”. This is reinforced if Mary actually acknowledges her breach and apologizes. This confirms the context that was assumed and strengthens it for the inevitable “next time”.

The net effect for both leader and follower in this environment is confidence. A leader trying to be perfect will be tentative. A leader acting naturally will make mistakes, but will confidently make amends and move forward. Likewise, followers can keep moving forward even when an action is incongruous. The speed of progress in any organization will be correlated to all parties acting with the confidence that predictable consistency brings.

The simple concept of acting as you believe delivers powerful benefits to individuals, leaders, and the whole enterprise. It is a simple concept, but not necessarily an easy one to make a permanent part of the organization’s culture. Training on the organization’s values seems like the path but it really isn’t. Recall that integrity is the consistent demonstration of a set of values by one’s actions. Instilling only the values does not cause the belief-action link. Perhaps experiencing the benefits has a better chance of creating a closer match of “walk and talk”. Everyone likes to know “what’s in it for me” and there truly is something for everyone when Integrity is consistently demonstrated.

How do you demonstrate integrity in your life or work? How can you do more of that?