Without Integrity, Nothing Else Matters

“If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
Alan Simpson, former U.S. Senator

You can’t be a leader of a company, a team, or even a family if no one is following you. Leadership requires followership. And according to Lawrence M. Miller, the author of “American Spirit: Visions of a New Corporate Culture,” following is an act of trust. As he puts it, “It’s an act of faith in the leader. And faith can only be generated by the leader who acts with integrity.”

Of course, you may wonder if integrity is really that big of a deal. Absolutely! In an American Management Association survey, 1500 managers and executives were asked to identify the qualities in others they most respected. The survey asked them to rank such qualities as competence, cooperation, dependability, and determination. Integrity came out as the HIGHEST rated quality they wanted to see in their subordinates, colleagues, and superiors.

In that same survey, those 1500 managers and executives were asked to check the six values they considered to be the most important in themselves. Honesty and responsibility topped the list … both values related to integrity.

In another study, the Cox report on the impact of various qualities on career advancement, the quality of honesty received by far the highest rating. 75% of the survey respondents said honesty had a HUGE impact on career advancement.

Even though we can all point out notable exceptions, it seems quite clear that you won’t go up the organizational ladder …and stay there … or succeed forever … unless you possess integrity. Sooner or later, you’re going to get caught or meet your downfall if you cut corners on integrity.

So how can you lead, model, work, and live with integrity? As a bare minimum, you must do four things.

1. Practice caring honesty.

Unfortunately, some leaders act with less than caring honesty and integrity, and they destroy the trust of their subordinates and stockholders. That was the case with one company that claimed its product would perform in a certain way.

The problem was … the executives knew … and the employees who made the product, the employees who installed the product, and the employees who repaired the product knew … the product would not perform as advertised. Nonetheless, the executives sent the product out the door. Not only did this lack of integrity cost the company money, it cost the company the trust of its workforce and customers.

When I talk about honesty, some of my audience members get nervous. They equate honesty with brutal, destructive, negative criticism they’ve received in the past. And they remember their critic justifying their behavior by saying, “I’m just being honest.”

No, that is not “caring honesty.” That is simply another form of bullying.

Caring honesty is telling the truth … but telling it in a way that is helpful to all parties concerned.

2. Give up short-term gain for long-term benefit.

Every leader has to decide whether it is better to do something that will bring about some good short-term gains or wait a while to do something that will bring about some better long-term benefits. It can be a tough call.

After all, it is easy to respond to a short-term priority or pressure. But it takes guts to defer a short-term priority for a long-term objective. Just look at Congress as they wrestle with the national debt, Social Security, and Medicare reforms. They’re constantly weighing their chances of re-election versus the changes they have to make to ensure the financial stability of the entire nation.

However, the leaders who act with integrity put off short-term gain for long-term benefit. It’s a lesson that one Chairman of the Board had to learn the hard way.

This Chairman often spoke to his employees about the importance of producing a high quality product. However, under pressure from the stockholders, he pushed his engineers to produce a new product by a certain date. The engineers … with caring honesty … told the Chairman they needed more time to overcome some design problems. They wanted to keep working on the product to get it right.

The Chairman wouldn’t hear of it. He put the defective product on the market, which went into hospitals, and he ended up with disastrous lawsuits and a significant drop in the stock prices.

And what was the Chairman’s reaction to all of this? Did he recognize that it was his own fault, that he pushed the engineers to manufacture the product despite its flaws? No, he fired them. He failed to listen to the “caring honesty” of his engineers, and just like the company above, his actions cost the company money and trust.

Are you willing to give up short-term gains for long-term benefits? Any fool can immediately improve the profitability of any company. All he or she has to do is cut costs. And many so-called “leaders” have made a name for themselves by cutting costs. Unfortunately, they’re like the Lone Ranger who rides into town for a short period of time and rides out before anyone sees the long-term consequences of their actions.

It takes guts and integrity to take a longer view … that takes more time … but creates lasting benefits.

3. Do what is right.

If you’re honest with yourself … you know whether or not what you’re doing is “right.” You don’t need a team of lawyers to advise you on the technicalities of the law before you make most decisions in life or at work. All the lawyers can do is tell you what is “safe” but not necessarily “right.”

But just in case you’re in an integrity quandary … that you’re not quite sure what is the “right” thing to do … go through Frank Bucaro’s “Ethics Checklist.” As a professor and author, Bucaro says you should ask yourself four questions. Your answers will help you decide what the “right” thing to do is.

*Is it legal? If a behavior is illegal, the odds are quite good that the behavior is unethical, as well.

*How would I feel if what I did … or am about to do … was posted on the bulletin board? In other words, how would I feel if my coworkers knew about the behavior in question?

*How would I feel if my family knew about this behavior?

*How would I feel if my behavior was published in the newspaper?

One of my audience members and the founder of www.Precious.org, Jason Damkoehler put it this way: “Integrity is everything. Any business or project whose success is contingent on you compromising what you know is right, is a business not worth building. A strong, integrative foundation is what separates you from the crowd.”

Damkoehler goes on to say, “Simply stated: always do what is right. When the winds of change and trial eventually come (and they WILL come), many businesses built on shaky foundations with circumstantial ethics will get carried away by the storm, while you will stand and maybe even prosper. And even if the worst comes and your business can’t make it, you can walk away a complete person, knowing you stood firmly for what was right, even to the end. “

4. Open up the feedback channels.

It’s almost impossible to build trust where information is withheld. And it’s almost impossible to exhibit integrity if you don’t give and receive a lot of feedback.

For example, imagine yourself being the coach of a basketball team, standing on the sidelines, watching one of the players making a free throw. You see him do something you KNOW is not good. You know it will reduce his chances of making a basket, and you say to yourself, “That’s really terrible. He shouldn’t do that. When his performance review comes up in three months, I’ve got to tell him about that.”

Can you imagine a basketball coach doing that? Withholding information he knows will help his player? You wouldn’t trust that coach, and you wouldn’t trust a boss that did that. And yet it happens all the time in organizations.

It takes guts to give open, honest, timely feedback. If you don’t believe me, take this test. Take out a piece of paper, and on the top of it put the name of a subordinate (if you’re a supervisor or manager). Draw a line down the middle. On the left side, write down all the positives … all the things you like about the way that subordinate does his job. On the right side, write down all the negatives or all the things you would like this person to do differently or better.

With your list of 5 to 10 things on each side of the page, imagine calling that subordinate into your office where you have the list. How would you feel? I’ve noticed that many managers get nervous and they want to cover up the list.

Why so? Because on that paper are surprises or bits of news for that subordinate. There are things the manager is not sure he/she wants the other person to see.

That’s crazy. It’s the job of every manager to help his/her subordinates be winners. And one of the easiest ways for people to become winners is to give them all the information they need to improve their performance. It’s a way of showing your integrity and building their trust.

Times are tough. And when times are tough, the temptation to cut corners on integrity increases. Don’t do it. In the long run, it’s integrity that always wins.

Action:  Where in your life do you need to open up the feedback channels? Pick out one or two people that need your feedback and decide what you can say in “caring honesty.”