Integrity: Perhaps the Most Important Virtue of a Leader

I once worked for a company whose core values included, “do the right thing”.

Unlike loads of companies who merely shove their values up on a plaque, and pay lip service but don’t practice them, this company walked their talk. This value of ‘doing the right thing’ was measured, talked about, and used as a lens for decision making every day. ‘Doing the right thing’ was expected of everyone in the way they behaved, treated others, and made decisions – especially the senior management team.

As a new leader in this company, “doing the right thing” often made me stop and think about my behaviour.  When I was facing a decision, it made me pause and reflect on what to do next. It was a compass for decent decision making. At times, it even made me feel squeamish when I thought about what action I had been about to take (or, in some cases, if I’m honest, the action I had taken).  Like the time when I had not addressed an ongoing conflict between two of my team members because I was conflict avoidant. ‘Do the right thing’ often meant taking the hard, but right, path.

In a nutshell, it meant integrity.

Integrity is possibly one of the most important things you can have, when it comes to your leadership practice. Sure, it’s one of those often-touted, less often demonstrated, core values.  But when it’s in action, it has real substance. It matters. Integrity equates to character. Ethics. Having a strong moral compass. And yes, doing the right thing.

We only have to glance at the media to find examples of leaders who have not acted with integrity. They’ve asked others to do something and then not held themselves to the same standards. They’ve chosen to say nothing when they saw or knew of things going on in their organisation that were unethical or causing others harm.  They’ve chosen the attainment of short-term results when doing so was wrong, and in some cases, downright dangerous. Like in this blog post I wrote in 2015 about Volkswagon’s unethical decisions on vehicle safety.  

So why is integrity so, well, integral?

People want to work for people who are ethical: In a survey of over 1000 office employees and more than 2,200 CFOs by Robert Half Management Resources, 76% of workers and almost half of C-suite executives believed integrity to be the most important attribute among business leaders.  

Countless other studies show how important integrity is to employees when they think of leaders.

There’s a strong link between trust and integrity: Integrity is a critical component of being trustworthy as a leader.  You really can’t underestimate it. And if you’re still wondering why trust is important for leaders to cultivate, read this blog post.

Covid has made it even more important: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is shaping the relationships between leaders and their teams in ways we couldn’t have imagined a couple of years ago.  Trust and integrity are now at the heart of almost every leadership action in the new hybrid work environment.

So, how can you cultivate integrity as a leader?

  1. Know (and live) your values. See this blog post I wrote on how to do that.
  2. Do the newspaper or mentor test. When faced with a decision or action or behaviour, ask yourself, “if this was on the front of the newspaper tomorrow, would I feel ok with what I have done or said?” Another version of this is to think about a mentor or person in your life who you respect and look up to (and who has integrity). Ask yourself, “what would they say about what I’m about to do next?” If the answer leaves you feeling uncomfortable, there’s your answer.
  3. Reflect when you don’t get it right. You likely won’t get it right 100% of the time. We all like to think of ourselves as fair and honourable and good. But take for instance, Project Implicit’s IAT test on uncovering your biases. Most of us discover some uncomfortable truths about our unconscious biases when we take this test. The list of people who have only ever acted with integrity, all the time, ain’t that long! When you stuff up, or have acted in a way that makes you feel a bit guilty or uncomfortable, ask yourself these questions:
    • Is there something I can do to make this right? If so, then do it. It might mean facing the music, or learning a tough lesson, but at least you’ve tried to repair any damage and make right when you did wrong.
    • What was going on for me to make me act in that way? What was the underlying need I was trying to fulfil by doing or saying what I did? Was a desire for acceptance by a specific group driving my behaviour? Did I want to avoid conflict? What pressures were I experiencing for me to act the way I did? What did I fear? Get curious about your answers. Then ask yourself, “if I was being my best leadership self, what would I have done instead?” Commit to doing that next time.
    • What are my insights? What am I learning about myself? Self-awareness is always a good thing.
  4. Practice courage. Courage to do the right thing, especially when faced with potentially unpleasant consequences for yourself, is bloody hard! Just ask any whistleblower. That said, courage has been present in every great leader I have ever worked with, period.
  5. Be honest. This seems obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: tell the truth.
  6. Forget the buzz word. What does integrity mean, in action? Everyone is pro integrity. But in your organisation or team, what does that mean in reality? What are the specific behaviours and actions which show us that you are acting with integrity and what are specific examples that show you are not? Like with any value, you need to get specific if you want to make it stick.
  7. Measure yourself. Do a self-audit on a regular basis. Jim Loehr’s book, Leading With Character has some great concepts and ways to do this.

It’s easy to bag some of the oft-quoted words that make up many company’s values; integrity is chief among them. Terms like this get a bad rap because they’re easier to say than they are to live and demonstrate daily, and we often see businesses and leaders fall short.

But this doesn’t mean they lack value.

Integrity – especially when you can get granular about how this looks for you – should always be what you aspire to and practice as a leader.

Related: 6 Ways To Lead Your Team Through the “Back to Work Blues”