What is integrity? An up and coming professional at the beginning her career recently asked this question. This is how I responded.
Every leader I have met, interviewed, and worked with has a different perspective on what integrity means, and when I boil down their different definitions into the common elements, the interpretations center around three themes:
1) Integrity is driven by a personal desire for something.
2) Integrity is all-encompassing.
3) Integrity is unique to the individual.
Integrity is Driven by a Personal Need
Most leaders strive to demonstrate that they possess integrity. Although their reasons for this reputation vary, I can summarize the desire as ‘a drive to be believed, trusted, and respected.’
Early in my career I did not understand the importance of this need. My supervisor asked for a progress report on an assigned project. Knowing that I hadn’t gotten much work done on it and wishing to avoid the shame of looking incompetent, I embellished what I had accomplished. When he pressed me for more details, I dug myself into a hole while trying to reconcile his expectations against my accomplishments. He quickly realized that I was not telling him the entire truth. For the next year, any time I was asked to report on work I had accomplished for the week, he asked me directly, “Is that the truth, Ron?”
In my deception to make myself look better, I lost his trust. To him, I lacked integrity, yet he wanted and needed me to have it. This scar echoes in my mind regularly and serves to remind me what can happen if I lack two key qualities of integrity – honesty and telling the truth.
Integrity is All-encompassing
Marcus is a supervisor who wants to become a manager in his overall aspiration to someday become an executive. Marcus demonstrates professionalism in almost every aspect of his work, except for one.
After his promotion to supervisor, Marcus stayed friends with most of the peers on his former team. One of these employees, Antonio, is considered by many to be a troublemaker, manipulator, and an employee who creates unnecessary drama. Antonio does just enough work to get by and not be fired. Even though they do not see much of each other on the clock because they work in different business units, Antonio and Marcus spend time together after work.
Marcus was in a performance evaluation with his boss and near the end of it he asked, “Am I on track to be promoted?”
His boss Sheila didn’t address this question, which annoyed Marcus, so he pressed until she responded, “None of us on the leadership team think you are management material.”
She replied, “Well… you have a character flaw regarding your judgment about people.”
This stunned and hurt Marcus, who had worked hard to meet all his commitments and demonstrate that he was reliable and good at leading others. After pressing the issue with Sheila and then her boss, Marcus finally found out the truth. His relationship with Antonio put a stain on his reputation and how others perceived him. His otherwise sterling reputation for professionalism was ignored and he was being judged solely on his close relationship with the misfit Antonio.
Your integrity is made up of many factors – professionalism, accountability, honesty, openness, follow-through, commitment, etc. Integrity is like a mosaic and if even one piece of your mosaic is missing or damaged, the whole mosaic is deemed as flawed. While it may seem unfair at first, you must realize that integrity means wholeness. Therefore, others define your integrity by looking at the total you, not just parts such as your demeanor, behaviors, and contributions on the job.
Integrity is Unique to the Person
To explain this, I must describe a colleague I admire. Odette has many gifts including tenacity, grace, vision, taste, and a warm heart. Odette has accomplished much in her life and continues to do more. Odette has an inner strength of character from several sources and the one that I am most intrigued by is the dedication and commitment to keeping her promises.
We see each other regularly at a speakers’ conference, and recently over dinner we were describing our schedules for the coming year. When I asked if she would be in attendance at next year’s conference Odette responded, “I won’t be here because of my birthday.” The next conference was scheduled on her birthday.
“Why?” I asked.
She responded, “I have always taken that day off, even if a client tries to book me for that day. I have been doing that as long as I remember.”
I asked, “Could you celebrate your birthday another day so that you can attend?”
She replied, “No. My birthday is a special time for me and I put myself ahead of my clients and everyone else.”
So I challenged her by saying, “But this conference is not about work.”
She replied, “No it’s not that. Something like attending a conference or going to the doctor’s office is not as important as celebrating my special day.”
I was impressed. Through the years, I’ve met people who treated their birthday as a special day but if they had to choose between family or work obligation and their special day, the obligation took priority. At first I was puzzled by Odette’s explanation as to why she did this but after dwelling on it for a while, I got my answer.
Odette’s integrity shows through when she keeps her promises and one of the most important people who deserve this commitment is her. I think about this often because up to that point, I tended put my needs and wants on a much lower priority than the needs of my clients, employees, and family.
It might appear to you that someone who puts a self-directed commitment to herself ahead of duty to others seems arrogant. It is not! Odette’s commitment to keep her special day clear of obligations speaks to what integrity is about. Odette believes in keeping her promises. She made a promise to herself, early in life that her birthday is special, a day “Where I can choose I to do what I want and I choose to put my focus on myself.”
What This Means to You
Integrity is consistently sticking to lofty, self-determined and beneficial principles, even at those times when you don’t want to, have to, or need to.
- Odette displays integrity when she chooses to meet her commitments to her clients, friends, family, and above all, to herself.
- Marcus displays integrity through his professionalism and is now very careful about the people he associates with. If you spend time with people who lack integrity, you create the impression that you lack it too.
- I display my integrity by being scrupulously honest and telling the truth even when I must deliver information the listener does not want to hear. To be trusted, you must be trustworthy because being reliable and trustworthy demonstrates that you have integrity.
Earning a reputation for high integrity is a complex leadership and personal effort because of the many factors that people use in defining what integrity is and looks like. Integrity is a label that only the people you serve can award you. You cannot give yourself the designation of ‘a person of integrity.’ You earn this honor by continuously displaying a wholeness that shows you are honorable and take the High Road® in everything you do and say.