By Chris Hitch, Ph.D.
Originally published by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

During the first post on this series (view here), I argued that demonstrating ROI for Integrity is a key leadership challenge at all levels. If you are an individual contributor or a leader in any organization, you justifiably ask, “Does integrity make a difference or is a lack of integrity simply the cost of doing business today?”

I’ve observed that integrity is one of the key factors of leadership. This post digs deeper on some elements of integrity I’ve witnessed and read about over 25 years that have proven to be most important. Integrity is critical whether you are a formal leader or an individual contributor who leads informally.

You read, watch, and see instances of destructive behaviors. Demonstrating integrity is harder and easier now with our 24/7 news cycle and the incessant social media where you know you are being watched or recorded. Demonstrating integrity simply sets you apart in a very positive manner. A recent Google search of “lack of integrity” created over 3 million results.

What Do You Value?

Before you can act with integrity, you have to define and make explicit what you value. Almost every organization has a set of core values embedded in either a mission statement or statement of core values. Additionally, almost everyone can talk about personal values that they espouse or say are important. Both of those are necessary but insufficient. Enron seems to be the classic case of being unethical. What’s chilling about these unethical decisions made by people at many levels of the company is the complete disregard of their stated values in this video clip juxtaposed against the actions of formal and informal leaders at many levels as seen in this documentary.

Key Elements of Integrity

Integrity is the foundation for leadership. Your teammates, your colleagues, your peers, your clients, and your loved ones need to be able to count on you. Integrity means “all together” or “whole cloth”. GEN Shelton, the 14th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted to me that “ a person with strong moral character and integrity is someone you can trust implicitly. Their word is their bond. If a person with integrity tells you they are going to commit to do something, they will do it.” I’ve listed ten elements of integrity I’ve observed through work with over 6,000 individual contributors, managers, executives, and those at the highest levels of leadership in multiple organizations and industries.

1. Do What You Say
Integrity is that particular quality of character that occurs when a person stays true to their commitments. The word, integrity, comes from the Latin word, integer, meaning whole or complete. Your beliefs, words, and actions are aligned on a consistent basis. This means that a person—and in some cases an entire organization—has a point of view about what matters. They declare something of value and they stick to that endorsement. They do what they say. They stand for something, even if, and especially if, they stand to lose something in the process. (source)

2. Honesty
I worked with a product director who illustrated this element of integrity with a story. She managed over 450 employees and independent contractors. One day, an accounts payable processor came to her and showed her a reimbursement sheet that had an unallowable expense on the reimbursement form. The unallowable expense was for a nominal amount-$25 to buy an umbrella by an independent contractor working out of state. The product director called the independent contractor and asked about the umbrella. The contractor got huffy and said, “I’ll just take it off and just resubmit my reimbursement using the general and customary company codes.” Three days later, the product director got another email asking for her time with the accounts payable processor. When she met with the A/P processor, the processor showed her the revised reimbursement receipt from the independent contractor that had multiple expense entries inflated in different categories that totaled $25. The independent contractor attached a sticky note to the reimbursement sheet saying “find the umbrella”. The processor asked the product director what to do. She declined the reimbursement and fired the independent contractor. As she said, “If I can’t trust him to be truthful with this small amount, how can I trust him with the bigger customer challenges and issues that will come up?”

3. Selflessness
During one of our executive development sessions, we discussed differences between leaders we admire and those we loathe. Instinctively, we talked about good and evil leaders. What we pulled out was that both sets of leaders demonstrated similar characteristics – what set them apart were their compassion for others and selflessness. Great ethical leadership has at its’ core a focus on accomplishing the organizational goals and helping others succeed in a moral manner.

4. Consistency
Our two adult children have taken two very different career paths. Our daughter is an elementary school teacher. I went to volunteer at her school her one day. Her class was walking in line quietly to the restroom to wash up before lunch. We met another teacher’s class of students at the restrooms. The other class was “more energized” than our daughter’s class. The other teacher scolded her classroom, “Why don’t you act like Ms. Hitch’s class?” One young lady from the other teacher’s class simply said, “Ms. Hitch doesn’t play.”

5. Moral Courage
I’m struck by the C.S. Lewis quote, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Moral courage helps avoid this slippery slope. Moral courage takes several forms, including speaking the truth to others (especially those who are peers or above you in the organizational structure). It could mean speaking the truth to your bosses, especially when it is unpopular. The recently replicated classic Milgram study in 1961 demonstrates the power of not speaking up. Moral courage can mean saying or doing what is right, even when it could be personally damaging to you or damaging a relationship. (for example, Source: Lamoreaux, “Vetting Moral Courage”, CIO magazine, July1, 2013, page 20).

When you are a leader, it also means that you have the moral courage to listen to uncomfortable things from those who are lower in organizational status than you are. You have to reinforce a culture that encourages lower-ranking people to speak up when they perceive something to be unethical. (source)

6. Tell the Whole Truth
One C-suite executive told me there are four parts to telling the whole truth-the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, and telling it in time so you can do something about it. She noted several instances where people would tell her the truth but not give her any information other than the narrow question that she asked. Other times she had to pull the information out of people in ways that sounded like a cross examination of a hostile witness. She noted that these half-truths were corrosive to working with the individual and soon became so problematic that the individual was dismissed.

7. Respect to All
I’ve had the honor to work with some of the highest senior leaders in public service. What sets them apart is that they are unfailingly courteous and respectful to everybody, from the food service attendant, to the wait staff, and to those at the lowest levels of the organizational structure. One of these senior leaders simply said, “to whom much is given, much is expected. They’re doing the hard work-telling them thank you costs you nothing and pays off royally.”

8. Your word is your bond
If you say you will deliver something, you have to give the perfect three point landing-the right deliverable to the right person at the right time. If you can’t stick that three point landing, let those who depend on you know that in time so they can adjust. Our son works in the financial services industry with big data. He shared a comment from his boss’s boss who said they could always count on him to stick that three point landing, which had a direct impact on the business being able to more accurately and nimbly adjust to market conditions.

9. 100% is better than 99%
Clayton Christensen wrote this in his book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” It’s always easier, he says, to hold fast to your values all of the time, rather than almost all of the time. He asserts that once you set your boundaries, you should never violate it, even “just this once.”

What are elements of integrity from your point of view?