Leaders, Lies, and Love: Four Keys to Integrity

On Valentine’s Day, it may seem inappropriate to write about leaders, lies, and love. But I would venture to say that nothing is more loving in a work relationship or a personal relationship than telling the truth or living a life of integrity.

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

But think about it. What difference do those qualities make if the public, or your employees, coworkers, and family members can’t trust you?

Does it matter how exciting your vision is if people don’t believe you’ll actually implement it?

Does it matter how well you communicate if people can’t believe what you say?

And does it matter how good your problem-solving skills are if you lie to the very people whose support you need?

By contrast, I’ve found that the best, most effective LOVING leaders are known for their integrity. To be specific, their behavior is marked by four characteristics.

► 1. Tell the truth.

There seems to be no middle ground. You’re either telling the truth or you’re telling a lie.

Now that may seem too simplistic, but that’s the way employees (and the other people in your life) see it.

They don’t know when a lie is so small that it’s okay. And they don’t know when a lie is so big that it’s not okay. They don’t know what that line is or when it’s been crossed. So they conclude all lies count and all your lies, no matter how big or how small, destroy their trust in you.

Of course, telling the truth may not be comfortable. It may not make you look the best. But telling the truth is the only chance you have of making a relationship work or having your leadership followed.

I like the way one wealthy individual told the truth in the New York Times. He was asked how he had amassed a huge fortune years before. He said, “It was really quite simple. I bought an apple for five cents, spent the evening polishing it, and sold it the next day for ten cents. With this I bought two apples, spent the evening polishing them, and sold them for twenty cents. And so it went until I had amassed $1.60. It was then that my wife’s father died and left us a million dollars.”

He told the truth. He didn’t add a few extra details. He didn’t glamorize the process. He didn’t even “stretch” the truth for a little extra impact. He just told the plain old unvarnished truth — which is what you’ve got to tell if you aspire to be a “true” leader.

► 2. Talk and walk your values.

Verbalize your values. Don’t make your employees (or your family members or anyone else) have to guess what you stand for. Tell them what you believe and how you feel and why you think that way.

And then let them see you walk your talk. Let them see you make decisions and choose behaviors that are consistent with your spoken values.

When you do that, other people may not always agree with you. They might not even like some of the things you say and do, but they will respect you more.

One example comes to mind. The whole world respected Mother Teresa, even people who did not agree with her theological or pro-life 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

► 3. Keep your promises.

Avoid mush language. Don’t ever say things like “I’ll think about” or “I’ll get back to you” when you have no intention of ever 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.”

► 4. Admit your mistakes.

Everyone make mistakes. But what really hurts your leadership and what really makes mistakes expensive is not admitting them right away.

Unfortunately, most business cultures discourage people from admitting their mistakes. They’re indirectly taught to bury their mistakes or blame someone else.

Not Katie Paine, founder and CEO of the Delahaye Group. She instituted the “Mistake of the Month Club.” She says, “Several years ago, I overslept and missed a flight to a big client meeting. I walked into my next staff meeting, plunked $50 down on the table, and said, ‘If you can top this mistake, that money is yours’.”

Katie continued, “People started to own up to mistakes and suddenly we had a flood of them. At every staff meeting since, we’ve set aside 30 minutes to write up the mistakes of the month on a whiteboard. Then we cast a vote. Since then we’ve recorded more than 2000 mistakes. Once a mistake hits the whiteboard, it tends not to happen again. It has become a bonding ritual. Once you go through it, you’re a member of the club.”

Admitting your mistakes takes guts. But it shows character and builds trust. It is a vital piece of the honesty that makes you a leader of integrity.

In conclusion, you’ve got to avoid the temptation of merely saying what people want to hear. If you’re going to be a real leader (instead of a politician or a charlatan), you can’t play games with honesty. You’ve got to demonstrate your absolute commitment to honesty. You’ve got to tell the truth and you’ve got to admit your mistakes.

Final Thought: Employees will forgive and forget a leader’s errors in judgment, but they will never forget his/her lack of integrity. (The same goes for your family members.)