Someone once said “Integrity isn’t a value in an of itself, but it is a value that guarantees all the other values”.  I believe that is quite true.  In this installment of the “quality of a leader” series, we will examine the idea of integrity.  And for simplicity, I will define integrity as this, “be true to your word”.

The need for integrity in leadership cannot be overstated.  Brian Tracy, founder of FocalPoint, says,  “Integrity is the most required, the most respected and the most admired quality of superior people”.  If you want to be respected as a leader, you have to be seen as a person of integrity.

Picture The Effective Leaders in Your Life

Take a moment and think about the most effective leaders you have had the pleasure of serving under.  These may be bosses, team leaders, pastors, scout leaders, coaches or mentors.  Your relationship may have been professional or personal.  Take a moment and think about that person.  Picture them in your mind.

Got them?  Now, think about the attributes that made you think of them.  While many different traits may come to mind, I would guess all of them would share this trait to some degree.  I cannot imagine any leader that you would consider effective, any leader that you would respect, any leader that was a pleasure to serve, as being a leader that lacked integrity.

A Universal Value (Almost)

In their groundbreaking work “The Leadership Challenge”, James Kouzes and Barry Posner have surveyed over 100,000 people from around the world over the years.  Over thirty years, “Honesty” has come out as the most important characteristic each time.  (And for the sake of this post, we’ll consider honesty = integrity).

Interestingly, “honesty” is the number one characteristic in almost every country.  In only a few did it not come in first.  Those countries include China (where it was 3rd), Scandinavia (3rd), Singapore (4th) and Turkey (3rd).  I will not begin to try and analyze why these four countries rank it lower than “Forward thinking”, “Inspiring” and “Competent”.  But you can come up with your own ideas.

Kouzes and Posner state that “overall, (honesty) emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship.  Think about this for a moment.  Of all the things people want in a leader.  The thing they want, admire, desire and crave the most, is honesty.

Why do you think honesty ranks highest so often?  I have a few ideas:

  • It truly is the most important thing for us
  • We have been burned by a dishonest leader in the past
  • We currently work for a dishonest leader and don’t know how to escape

It gets real, real quick

Honesty is among the most personal of the traits that can be applied to a leader.  Think about it.  Strategic vision?  That’s not personal at all.  Competency?  Intelligent, ambitious, courageous, loyal….   The list goes on.  But none are as personal as honest.  Honesty, like its close cousin “authenticity”, are traits that a leader show in their personal interactions with their constituents.  To “be true to your word” is an incredibly personal attribute.

And honesty, or especially integrity, cannot easily be faked.  I like the definition of integrity as “when you act the same when nobody is looking”.  A dishonest person, or a person without integrity, will eventually be “found out”.  They cannot hide behind sales figures, successful teams, or status reports forever.

I remember a boss who was quite the tyrant.  He had a number of nicknames.  I won’t share any of them here, just in case he’s reading this.  One year, after we had completed our 360-degree feedback, he brought his direct reports in a room and essentially threatened us.  He wanted to know who had thrown him under the bus.  I understand that he was upset.  And I appreciate the fact that he wanted to make amends.  But the truth was, his approach lacked integrity and did not do anything to change the opinion of him by his team.  (And, no, it wasn’t me who threw him under the bus).

Honesty is critical for successful organizations

Simon Sinek, in his book “Leaders Eat Last” talks about the “Circle of Trust” that military people understand.  The idea is that for an organization to truly be successful, a leader must have a circle of trust in his organization.  This device ensures that feedback can be given safely.  It allows team members to share dissenting views and keep their jobs despite making a mistake.

Being true to your word is just the start.  But it is a good start.  Being true to your word means that when you tell your team you have an open-door policy, it means that you want feedback and will not punish them for it.  It means that you want honest, anonymous feedback on your 360 reviews so that you can improve as a leader.  Being true to your word means that you want to be notified when there is a problem in the organization or with a customer, so you can help address it.  Not because you want to punish those responsible.

But How Can I Develop the Trait of Integrity

First, quite simply, be true to your word.  It sounds cliche, and it is.  But to be seen as a person of integrity you have to develop a reputation as being a person of integrity.  And, quite frankly, if you do not have that sort of reputation today, it will take time to build it.  Furthermore, if you have a history of not being a person of integrity, you might have to take even more drastic steps.  I would suggest an approach similar to a 12-step program.  In this approach, you must make amends for past wrongs and declare to others that you are making a significant change in your life, and for them to hold you accountable.

Second, you need to solicit feedback from those around you.  This can be done informally or formally and will depend largely on the type of relationship you have with those you are surveying.  A confidential 360-degree survey might be necessary to get good, honest feedback.  There are a number of instruments and methods to accomplishing this.

Third, develop a level of trust and communication within your team. This doesn’t have to be a walk in the woods with a trust fall or an escape room.  But you need some sort of dedicated engagement where you can talk honestly about behavior styles and work to develop better strategies for working together as a team.  A behavior assessment, such as DISC, is a great tool to aid in this process.

Finally, engage with a coach to help you reveal your blind spots and tackle the challenge of building a reputation of integrity and a culture of trust in your team.  Learning how to be true to your word is possible.  It is a trait we can develop and cultivate in ourselves and in our teams.  Contact me today.