There Is No Leadership Without Integrity

Employees will forgive and forget a leader’s errors in judgment, but they will never forget his lack of integrity.

I don’t get angry very often, but I’m angry. I’m angry at the huge amount of fraud and deceit that has gone on in American organizations the last few years. I’m angry at all the so-called “leaders” who intentionally misled their employees, stock holders, and customers. And I’m angry because people are losing their retirement savings; senior citizens are being forced back to work, and a whole nation is paying for the greed of a few “leaders.”

In my book, those people weren’t “leaders.” They were criminals. After all, the very first attribute of a “true” leader is integrity.

Of course, most leaders think vision, communication, or problem-solving skills come first. And they are an important part of the mix.

But think about it. What difference do those qualities make if the employees and the public can’t trust you? Does it matter how exciting your vision is if people don’t believe it’s good for them? Does it matter how well you communicate if people can’t trust what you say? And does it matter how good your problem-solving skills are if you only solve problems that benefit you? When you sacrifice your integrity, you sacrifice your most precious leadership tool.

Some of the so-called “leaders” think they can hide their lack of integrity. They forget the fact that people are always watching them. Employees notice everything they do. That’s the price a person pays for occupying a position of leadership–whether or not the person is a “true leader.”

There is never a time when a “leader” is not “leading.” If the “leader” chooses to ignore an issue rather than deal with it, he is leading. If the “leader” shows up late for meetings, she is leading. She’s leading her team members into thinking their time isn’t valuable. If the leader doesn’t return customer phone calls in rapid fashion, he’s leading his people to do the same.

Quite simply, everything you do as a leader counts. Everything! You can’t ever remove yourself from the leadership role.

That being said, how could you as a leader inadvertently sacrifice your integrity? How could you lose the trust of your employees? Criticizing one of your coworkers in public will do it. So will stretching the truth. If you encourage a salesperson to say whatever he needs to say to make the sale, you sacrifice your integrity. When you say you’re out of the office when you’re there, or say you didn’t receive a message when you did, you sacrifice your integrity.

So what can you do to earn the trust of your employees and protect your integrity? First, KEEP YOUR PROMISES. Avoid the temptation of merely saying what will make your employees feel good. Avoid mush language, phrases like “I’ll think about” and “I’ll get back to you” when you have no intention of doing so. Those are implied promises that people expect you to keep.

And a broken promise cuts deeply into your integrity. In fact, the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina, found that the number one block to a successful executive career was not following through on commitments.

By contrast, those who made it all the way to the top in their careers were those who kept their promises. They said, in effect, “I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do when I say I’m going to do it.”

Second, TALK AND WALK YOUR VALUES. Don’t make your employees read your mind. Don’t make them guess your values. Tell them how you feel and why you feel that way. And then let them see you make decisions and choose behaviors that are consistent with your spoken values.

When you walk your talk, your employees may not always agree with you. They might not even like some of the things you say and do, but you can sure bet they will respect you.

Two examples come to mind. The whole world respected Mother Teresa, even people who did not agree with her theological positions. The world respected her because she made it exceedingly clear what she believed, and every part of her life was consistent with those beliefs.

On a much more limited scale, many in this nation respected the late Senator Paul Wellstone. Even though I never voted for him, I always had the utmost respect for him. Nicknamed the “conscience of the Senate,” Senator Wellstone was never afraid to say what he really thought and never seemed to be swayed by what was “politically correct” or popular.

Third, to earn the trust of your employees, to protect your integrity, DEMONSTRATE FAIRNESS. It’s not easy. Things at work aren’t always black and white or right and wrong. And people are constantly complaining, “That’s not fair.”

Still, as a leader, you’ve got to do your best to demonstrate fairness, not partiality or favoritism. It will earn you lots of points with your employees.

When change comes about in an organization, such as re-engineering or down sizing, employees always ask how it will affect them. Will they be “winners” or “losers” in the change? The good news from George Washington University is that even the “losers” will tend to accept the change if they see it as fair. It’s your job to be fair and demonstrate that fairness.
Don’t take your employees’ trust for granted. Don’t do anything that will make your employees question your integrity. Do the three things I’ve outlined, and you’ll have a more dedicated workforce.

Action:  I discussed three integrity-building behaviors today: 1) keep your promises, 2) talk and walk your values, and 3) demonstrate fairness. Rank those three behaviors from 1 to 3 with “1” being the best. Which one are you best at? Which one are you the poorest at?

Take your number 3 behavior and write down two action steps you can take this week to improve that behavior. Now do it.