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How to lead with integrity

Customers want it, employees demand it and investors require it — integrity.

The increasing pressure to take shortcuts to success means business leaders must now, more than ever, model integrity and instill it in their people and organizations.

While some may define integrity simply as honesty, I view it as even more than that. It’s a commitment to a clear mission, vision and purpose.

As a C-suite leader, this is foundational. The mission, vision and purpose create an understanding of what the organization is aiming to achieve and governs decisions made at every level. I take every opportunity to bring them to the forefront and integrate them in everything we do.

Equally important is establishing expectations of transparency and the belief that everyone has a voice and ideas to help the company succeed. In the workplace, it’s what colleagues, customers and investors see as the predictable way the organization operates — doing the right thing for all parties in full view. When integrity manifests itself in an organization, everyone understands the goals, operates in line with expectations and holds each other accountable to those standards.

How do you know when integrity is slipping?

1) There’s more than one version of the truth. I stress the importance of having one story, the truth, to make clear where everybody stands and what’s required to achieve success. That integrity drives accountability and makes leading much easier.

If a leader always spins a story, it pressures the organization to be in constant flux to match the latest story. Leaders and companies that spin lose focus on their core strategy and beliefs. They lose integrity.

2) You see shortcuts in decision-making. Leaders can cause devastating damage to a company if they don’t hold themselves and their teams to a rigorous decision-making process. Integrity requires due diligence when making decisions and rejecting temptations to ignore input that doesn’t match your desired outcome.

3) Personal agendas win out. I worked for a Fortune 500 company that accidentally overpaid its employees due to a payroll-processing error. Some employees reported the error, while others justified why they deserved the extra money.
We all knew the right thing to do, but sometimes when the result is something we want personally, we try to justify it. Integrity fights the reflex to justify bad decisions.

4) Humility takes a back seat. When leaders start to believe they’re omniscient and don’t need anyone else’s perspective, integrity slips away. It’s important to stay grounded and actively seek new points of view. I surround myself with people who help me reflect on my strengths and weaknesses, and challenge my thinking with new perspectives.

I’ve seen the level of integrity at companies improve over the years, in part, because of the transparency social media has created and the role that some large financial institutions, such as BlackRock, have started to play. When BlackRock’s CEO published a letter to CEOs earlier this year stating, “Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate,” he was saying all companies should focus on integrity.

They need to be responsible corporate citizens.

This stands in contrast to the late 1980s, when the goal of business was to simply generate investor returns. We’ve come a long way and realized it’s not only about ROI.

Today, we emphasize taking care of the team, letting the team take care of the customers and believing the rest takes care of itself. And that’s integrity — doing the right thing, always and in full view, knowing the financial results will follow.

This article previously appeared in American Cities Business Journal.

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