Seventh Practice: Personal Integrity

For more context on this posting, please see:

The Practice of Leadership
Eight Leadership Practices
First Practice: Knowing Your Leadership Edge
Second Practice: Developing Your Comfort Level with Feedback
Third Practice: Caring for Self
Fourth Practice: Leadership and Influence
Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables
Sixth Practice: On Collaborating
Eighth Practice: Spiritual Perspective

The world, these days, seems to be full of stories about integrity’s almost legendary absence.

What caused the recession, for example? Try to answer and you will likely find yourself in the middle of a discussion of the topic at hand. Or try to talk about who should govern, liberals or conservatives. Or why don’t Americans trust their corporate leaders. These are all bridges into discussions of ethical foundations, and all too commonly, a lament.

At the outset integrity seems easy enough to define: a devotion to doing the right thing above and beyond simple self-interest. A devotion to the truth, even when the truth is uncomfortable. Doing what you say you are going to do, even when that places reputation at risk. Putting ethics ahead of either comfort or gain. These applications of integrity make it a close cousin of authenticity, transparency, and responsibility. Easy enough to define, more difficult to enact.

In practice integrity is difficult precisely because it is what we rely upon at the moments of our most uncomfortable, conscious choices. The most challenging of these moments represent high stakes decisions from which there is no return. Like telling the truth after you’ve lied. Or acknowledging your complicity in a problem when others thought you were not involved. What frequently defines these moments is a contest between what I know I should do and what I am inclined to do to keep myself safe. And sometimes, even more deeply, they reflect moments when I simply do not know what I should do at all, where there is no one single right, best, or ethical answer.

I think of a friend who after months of searching finally found work. She knew the job was not the best fit but she committed to her new employer that she would stay at least two years. And then, only a few months later, she was suddenly offered another better position in a different company — a job she was much better suited to perform by virtue of her temperament, interests, and skills. Should she break her promise? Should she stay or take the better opportunity. As someone outside the situation, it might be easy to say, break the promise — or keep it. But when people are inside these dilemmas, it isn’t so easy to live the dilemma at all.


Compensating Strategies

Integrity is the opposite of a formula. It’s how we decide what to do when there are no formulas. To slide off such an anxious moment, we may use compensating strategies. For example, I revert to a rigid, conventional view that a promise is a promise. It makes life simple to believe such things. If you made the promise you should fulfill it. You made your own bed, as they say — now go lie in it. That’s morality elevated to righteousness. Righteousness becomes the formula replacing true integrity as a difficult choice.

Another compensating strategy focuses on inner alignment. Yes, I made the promise but it won’t be good for the company if I stay, keeping my promise, only to be unhappy about the opportunity I missed. There’s a higher order of integrity that must be addressed — what’s right for me and my life and my real impact on others. After all, we shouldn’t tie people down to rigid, pointless rules. Situations dominate our lives, and we are constantly at work on determining what’s right from a larger standpoint. Of course, the shadow of this second strategy is selfishness and self-indulgence.

So, it might be said integrity hangs somewhere between these two compensating strategies, between morality and the satisfaction of genuine individual needs, between righteousness and selfishness, and is often confusingly applied. Where others are concerned, we like to apply the rules of morality — what they should have done. Where self is concerned, we prefer our entitlement to satisfy our own needs and desires: what I have a right to do. Our discussions go round and round between these poles.

How then, can we proceed at the moment of choice? The existentialist answer is that in making my choice I am really choosing for everyone. I cannot escape the responsibility of choosing for anyone else who might face a similar circumstance. There are times when it is right to keep a promise. There are also times when it is right to break one. I decide — but I decide for all of us who might find ourselves in exactly the same place.

Lying to Ourselves

What we must not do, in applying that definition, is lie … not just to others but to ourselves. Lying to ourselves is the very opposite of personal integrity. Righteousness and selfishness are the formulaic ways we slip toward self-deception. They assist the lie, but the lie is fundamental, and when we lack integrity it is because we come to believe the lie is necessary — so necessary that we can no longer tell it from the truth. I’m thinking here of a story I heard the other day about some layoffs in an organization. The President was explaining how accountable he felt his organization was, and how this accountability had been demonstrated by the way the company had dealt with a lot of performance problems through the layoffs. Now it was also clear that the people were not told they were being let go because they were performance problems; they were told this was economic necessity. So there was a lie to those laid off, but the deeper lie was that of the President to himself about whether his organization was actually an accountable workplace. Do you see what I mean? He was really saying the lie to the people meant the organization was accountable. Which is to say the company’s integrity was a lie. Should anyone in the President’s position have done the same thing? Was he actually saying that the right course of action is to lay people off without giving them the truth? Or could he tell the difference?

Oh, well, maybe we’ve gotten to the place where anyone who is laid off “for economic reasons” should just understand that their performance is the actual cause. But even so, at least in my book, it’s really not an accountable way to do things. That’s not integrity at all. It’s a lie of convenience. It’s lying to ourselves and calling it integrity. We had to do it for economic reasons. We had to lie.


What We Are Dying For

I believe what people are dying for is someone to help explain why we are in the messes we are in, and to do so honestly — which means acknowledging their own part in the problems. This gets us to to another definition of the word, integrity, as “the state of being whole and undivided.” We want to find someone who has stopped lying to self and others, who owns their choices and is willing to take the heat and the repercussions of their choices fully; someone who is willing to surrender what they’ve got in order to do the right things, and maybe that means surrendering a job, or money, position, power or stature. Someone willing to stand on the void and choose — not for this group or that group — this ideology or that — but for humanity. Heck, maybe this is someone even willing to go to prison or surrender their own life. That’s a very high standard, yet, I think it’s why we feel we are dying to find this leader, because implicitly we recognize that nothing less really will do, and when we look at those who exemplify this kind of leadership, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Aung San Suu Kyi, we are looking into a search for an undivided core, looking for our own souls. We search for this person, and maybe even know in the process, that it is fundamentally a search for ourselves, the people we could be, if only we could heal from our flaws, our weaknesses and faithlessness.

I think fundamentally we are afraid to be those people, the ones we could be. What we are feeling right now about integrity’s absence is the absence of our belief in ourselves, really. It is a crisis of confidence in a big and fundamental way. Our cynicism and powerlessness are cover-ups. So is our apparent self-interest. Who says we can’t engage? Heal the rifts and create together a genuinely inclusive, human culture, based on synergies and combined talent? We aren’t so different from that President talking about his “accountable” company. He’s just afraid, like the rest of us, to stand up in our true selves to co-create the kind of world we want to live in. To call for an end to the war. How convenient it is to talk about integrity’s lack but never hold up the mirror. Who says things cannot change on Wall Street, or in Washington, in our institutions, our corporations, or in the world of our own hearts? We’re just ambivalent about the price of such action. And that, in the final analysis, is what integrity has always been about. The price.

And yet, and here’s the hope, we really are so much bigger than we think we are. We’re like the characters in the Wizard of Oz searching for hearts and brains and courage, and looking for a way home to Kansas. What I believe, you see, is that we can learn to be our own heroes and heroines, and that’s also what integrity is about, if we can just give ourselves the chance.

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  • Excellent discussion! I like how you explore the nuances of this subject:

    So, it might be said integrity hangs somewhere between these two compensating strategies, between morality and the satisfaction of genuine individual needs, between righteousness and selfishness, and is often confusingly applied.

    Too often, an appreciation of these subtleties is missing.

    This part resonates very well with how I see integrity:

    This gets us to to another definition of the word, integrity, as “the state of being whole and undivided.” We want to find someone who has stopped lying to self and others, who owns their choices…

    Exactly. The decisions we make from that state where we experience ourselves as whole and undivided, where we drop our illusions of ourselves and the world, THAT is integrity. The more we know ourselves, the stronger our integrity will naturally be.

    After recently reading this blog post from the HBR on “integrity”, which I found very UNsatisfying:

    It was refreshing to read your post!!

  • Thanks for stopping by, Kartik, and for reinforcing some of the key thoughts I have tried to share here. I read the HBR blog article and felt my stomach tighten for several reasons, not the least of which is using Jack Welch as a positive example. Integrity can be a very tricky subject, potentially very divisive in itself. Your own words about the need to “drop our illusions of ourselves and the world” resonate with me in return. I think we’re on the same wavelength there for sure. I believe one of the greatest beauties of the human condition is the capacity to reach that moment of clarity and self-knowledge. We don’t need to hold those illusions, and we don’t need to despair without them. So much straw for the fire and then we can act.

    Thanks again for your comment — many best wishes.

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