Mention the word “integrity” and many people think of someone who is honest or trustworthy. While this is sometimes considered the definition of integrity, and these traits of honesty and trustworthiness are necessary traits of leadership, the better or more accurate definition of integrity is broader and deeper than what most people think. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines integrity as the quality or state of being complete or undivided. The word integrity comes from the Latin words integer or integritas; both are words that in ancient Roman times meant completeness or wholeness. During inspection, Roman soldiers would pound their chest and shout these words to indicate that both their armor and their character were complete or sound.
Integrity carries the concept of consistency of actions, values, principles, expectations, and outcomes. It also indicates a high level of moral standards that drive everything that the leader does. It is said that “actions speak louder than words,” but perhaps integrity speaks even louder because the congruity or incongruity between our words and actions determines whether people can wholeheartedly follow us or not. Integrity is critical for leadership because it is the trait that communicates just how committed we are to our stated values and principles; it shows the real person.
Integrity, as stated, is a combination of a range of character traits that each stand on their own but work in concert. It can be thought of as the fabric that is interwoven with these traits. Therefore, leaders of integrity:
- Value honesty – They value honesty both from themselves and from those around them. A person of integrity doesn’t bend or whitewash the truth to suit themselves. And they value truth from those around them even when it might be negative feedback or bad news.
- Are authentic – They accept who they are and allow others to see into the strengths and weaknesses of their lives. They are comfortable in their own skin.
- Demonstrate moral courage – They do what is right in all circumstances, even when doing so costs them on a personal level. They don’t give themselves “wiggle room” on their moral standards.
- Have clear and strong values – They have defined their values over their lifetime, allowing these values to then drive their behavior. They know their values and show their values.
- Are consistent – A leader of integrity has a well-defined set of values that guide every decision, therefore the decisions that they make are consistent. Everything about their life reflects their set of values.
- Value and respect others – They have compassion for other people. While recognizing that different people contribute differently, their moral code gives equal value to each person and separates the person from the contribution.
- Demonstrate selflessness – Their compassion for others demonstrates their humility, thinking of others first. They cheer and contribute to the successes of others.
- Do what they say – They stand by their commitments. Their beliefs, words, and actions are consistently aligned.
- Are decisive and effective – Because they are committed to a solid set of values, decisions become easier to make. The choice that is consistent with their values is the right choice.
- Generate trust – Trust results from their reliability and positive commitment, all built upon their positive moral code.
Without integrity, a person cannot generate the trust and respect that followers require before they make their commitment to follow. Without this relationship of trust and respect, it is difficult to draw followers. Without followers, a person is not really a leader at all. On the other hand, integrity in a leader attracts followers.
If integrity is so crucial for effective leadership, how does a person become a leader of integrity? By its very nature, integrity cannot be learned or implemented, it must be lived, and lived consistently over time. If you feel that you are lacking in integrity, it may be time to think long and hard about your core values. Are they the right ones and do you have a strong conviction about them? Are you living them day-by-day and minute-by-minute? By examining and perhaps realigning values and actions, a person can begin to build integrity into their life.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.