Global Leadership: True Meaning of Integrity

April 2012, by So-Young Kang

Integrity is one of the most misunderstood and misused words in organizations.

Here are 3 common myths I have often heard:

1) Integrity = just being honest
2) Balanced and compartmentalized life = life of integrity
3) Being in integrity = natural, effortless, just ‘part of who you are’

When I look at the definition of integrity, it’s defined as a “concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions.”

Let me call out the key words in this definition that are often missed. Consistency. honesty, and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions.

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Consistency is about being the same regardless of the situation. For example, do you know of leaders whose mood changes by the day and make rash decisions on certain days, yet calm and engaging on other days? This would be an example of inconsistency of actions and outcomes.

Consistency is a choice that we make as leaders every single day, even when the situation or environment is not great. If you just had an argument with someone before walking into your next meeting, consistency means that you will make a conscious choice to shift gears and release yourself from the negativity of the last conversation and not bring that to the next meeting.

Honesty or accuracy of one’s actions requires intentionality and thought. How honest or accurate are your behaviors, actions, and words with other people that you lead? I was at a meeting recently with a CEO who cares deeply about values yet is out of integrity because there is a lack of honesty and authenticity in how he behaves. While he says that he cares about teamwork, he doesn’t listen to others and gets defensive when challenged with different views. He believes in creating a culture of love but publicly berates and belittles junior employees.

Integrity stems from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete. So integrity requires an inner sense of ‘wholeness’ and consistency of character. When you are in integrity, people should be able to visibly see it through your actions, words, decisions, methods, and outcomes. When you are ‘whole’ and consistent, there is only one you. You bring that same you wherever you are, regardless of the circumstance. You don’t leave parts of yourself behind. You don’t have a ‘work you,’ a ‘family you,’ and a ‘social you.’ You are YOU all the time.

Given the real definition of integrity, we recognize that it is actually extremely difficult to be in integrity 100% of the time. We aspire to be in integrity with what we believe but sometimes, we mess up. Sometimes, our emotions get the best of us and we are unable to intentionally manage our behavior and actions. Sometimes, we don’t give ourselves permission to be our true selves out of fear of what others may think or due to an inability to truly ‘integrate’ the various parts of ourselves into ONE, complete WHOLE person.

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So, what does it take to be someone who leads with integrity? Consciousness and choice. I believe that there are at least 6 things that great leaders choose to do to be on a journey towards greater integrity:

1) Understands the true definition of integrity (hopefully after this post, you will be able to check this box).

2) Intentionally reflects on what to say, how to behave, how to make decisions in a way that is reflective of his/her values and beliefs.

3) Is the same authentic person regardless of the situation. You can meet this leader with their family, friends, church, or at a boardroom, and you will see a consistency in behavior, actions, and words. You will recognize this person no matter what environment he/she is in.

4) Recognizes the impact that he/she has on others. This leader is conscious of how his/her behavior and words impacts those around them intentionally and often times, unintentionally. So when this leader behaves in a way that is out of integrity, he/she stops, acknowledges, apologizes, and corrects course. This requires humility, authenticity, and ‘others-centeredness’ as you need to ‘see’ how others are responding to you.

5) Actively focuses on the development of character and wholeness. This leader spends time intentionally on this area through various areas, such as reading, getting coached, listening to the counsel of others, going to leadership development courses, and reflecting on how to develop character.

6) Enrolls others to be on the same journey. This leader aims to walk in integrity and as others see that, they are drawn to this. They can have confidence in this leader with the belief that this leader will do what he/she says and believes. They are able to inspire others to be on the same journey of lifelong pursuit of ‘wholeness’ and ultimately, INTEGRITY.

When I see people who really have integrity, I recognize it. Don’t you? I hope that I can enroll you to join me on this journey by starting with understanding the true definition of integrity.

*All artwork by J. Shim www.jshim.com

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