Why integrity in leadership is so important
To succeed as a leader, you need integrity — it’s what your customers expect, what your employees need, and what your investors demand. Business leaders are under increasing pressure to take shortcuts to success; they must encourage their people and organizations to practice integrity in leadership.
“Everybody thinks they’re ethical and have integrity until they’re challenged and it gets put to a test,” says Chuck Gallagher, CEO of Ethics Resource Group in Greenville, South Carolina. “That is why it is important to talk about integrity in practical terms so a leader can sit back and think about it.”
For example, Chuck has asked leaders if they think intentionally breaking the law breaks integrity. The answer? A resounding yes. But then he asks, “Do you speed every day?”
He adds that a leader expects employees to be financially responsible and not steal from the company. But when conversations include “pay us cash” — code for “We’re not going to report it” — it sends a message to employees.
“I’ve got no problem with taking advantage of every loophole,” he says. But to take cash and pocket it is theft. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
Integrity is the foundation for trust, adds Kevin Basik, Ph.D., the chief of leadership programs for The National Medal of Honor Institute and a Vistage speaker.
“For people to trust a leader, there is a competence piece. There is also a benevolence piece where people perceive that you’re sincere and authentic,” Basik says. “The third piece to building trust is integrity and a consistent alignment with your word.”
What is integrity?
The Latin root of the word integrity is intact, whole, complete, Basik says. A retired Lieutenant Colonel of the United States Air Forces, Basik sees integrity as an undivided adherence to a code or standard of excellence.
“You have to define the code for the organization or the business and then adhere to that moral code or standard of excellence,” he says.
Gallagher uses a “guiding compass” as a metaphor for defining integrity, the inner knowing of the right choices to make in life.
“Integrity is that construct that concept that if you have it, you will always act with it,” he says. It’s the unpredictability part of it that trips people up.”
Why integrity is such an important leadership attribute
People are hungry for leaders to lead by example, Basik says. This is true regardless of whether he’s speaking with senior pentagon officials, corporate leaders, special forces, or frontline employees. When he asks a person, “if someone is going to lead me, they better…” the resounding answer is “lead by example.”
“People say I need you to be an example of what right looks like in this organization because I’ll follow you either way,” he says. “That’s where leaders can sometimes get into trouble for not deliberately digging into this, and that is called drift.”
Unfortunately, systems never drift toward excellence, and that’s where leaders can get into trouble, Basik says. He once heard a speaker say, “If you’re not deliberate about it, you’re going to have to scramble to get back to excellence.”
3 Ways for leaders to show integrity
Upholding integrity can be challenging in high-pressure situations. These three strategies can help you demonstrate integrity in tough moments.
1. Consider the other side and its potential value before making a conclusion.
With four generations in the workforce, a leader has to be willing to make those changes that reflect the changes in society.
“In the early 1900s, women didn’t have the right to vote. Men at that time could, with integrity, say, ‘women are property and have no right to vote.’ That is asinine in 2022,” Gallagher says. “The question in 2022 is what are some of those things that people push against in our own integrity, or in the model of the world we grew up in, that we should stop and ask ourselves where is that coming from? Is it possible that I should at least be open to rethinking an idea?”
2. Define a clear commitment.
Avoid getting lazy or unclear about where an organization stands, Basik noted. “Clarify what you stand for and stand from and what will not be tolerated in ourselves or each other. Then shine a light on that,” he says.
3. Be fair, sincere, and willing to share the “ugly stuff.”
Be deliberate about what you say “no” to, Basik adds. That can also signal to employees what an organization “is not.”
How leaders can lead with integrity in their organization
According to Gallagher, leaders can demonstrate integrity in leadership by being willing to listen to their employees. A contemporary example he uses is Disney’s opposition to Florida’s 2022 “don’t say gay” education law.
“The employees in Disney are like, you need to take a stand for people, and that’s what is important to the people of this company,” he says. “You have to be publicly willing to do that even if that means losing the privilege of the tax benefit. That is acting with integrity.”
Another example comes from a CEO he met backstage at a speaking event. The CEO led an international construction company renowned for its large infrastructure projects but he chose not to operate in China.
“He said, ‘Our company believes in doing the right thing, and if you’re going to do an infrastructure project, you have to pay to play.’ That is a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.” Gallagher says. “We love doing business in the United States and believe there is enough business to go around that we can be wildly successful without going into countries where bribery is the norm and cultural expectation.”
“That’s leadership,” Gallagher says.
Accountability is another crucial way leaders show integrity. Having a difficult conversation (fairly and in a loving way) with a peer or employee about upholding the standard, defining the line, and holding it is essential, Basik says.
“Confidence helps people push through the fear of doing the right thing. Practice integrity with little repetitions that build up over time, so it is easier to do the right thing when a bigger issue arises,” he says. “Ring that bell, celebrate integrity moments. Call out and hold a person accountable when they drift from the standard.”