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.

Technorati Tags: and . Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.