Leading with Character: Integrity

April 10, 2016
Mike Stallard


Integrity can be defined as always interacting with others ethically and honorably. People with integrity aspire to the highest ethical standards and expect the same behavior of others. They conduct themselves honorably in any situation that may arise. They treat every person with respect and fairness. They are straightforward and forthright, expressing themselves with clarity, so that others always understand what is being communicated. They approach their work with honesty, and having made a commitment, keep their word.

Integrity: An Essential Component of Servant Leadership

The word “integrity” comes from the Latin “integritas,” meaning wholeness and soundness. The integrity of Servant Leaders is one reason people see them as being sound and grounded human beings. Their integrity is like a rock-solid foundation of a building.  Conversely, a leader who lacks integrity is not perceived to be solid, dependable or reliable.

Servant Leaders have integrity. In other words, they express what they believe (reflecting honesty) and what they feel (reflecting authenticity). They don’t hide or misrepresent their thoughts and feelings. They don’t exaggerate. They don’t lie. They follow through on their commitments. They practice what they preach.

Leaders with integrity declare and explain their values. In the “Montpelier Command Philosophy,” the commander of the U.S.S. Montpelier showed integrity by expressing his values, what he expected of himself and the crew he was responsible for leading. He also defined integrity as “Do the right thing; don’t take the expedient path. If you are not sure what the right thing is, and you have the opportunity, ask. If you can’t, trust your judgment and training. This requires a great deal of courage, but if you act honestly and faithfully in this regard, you will not be second-guessed.”

Because Servant Leaders possess the character strength of integrity, they strongly believe the following statements: it is more important to say what I believe than to be popular; things tend to work out when I tell the truth; I would never lie just to get something I want from someone; my life is guided and given meaning by my values; I always follow through on my commitments, even when it costs me; I dislike phonies who pretend to be what they are not; and, it is important to be open and honest about my feelings.

Why is integrity important to a Servant Leader’s performance? Effective leaders build trust with the people they lead. Trust is strengthened when a Servant Leader demonstrates integrity by saying what he/she believes and feels. When a leader has integrity, people aren’t left to guess the leader’s true intention, which often creates ambiguity, uncertainty and anxiety. Trust is also strengthened when a Servant Leader does what he/she declared would be done. This builds the Servant Leader’s reputation for reliability.

Integrity is related to the core element of Voice in a Connection Culture. People with integrity strengthen Voice in a culture because they speak up and say what they believe rather than withhold their thoughts or lie because they want to say what others want to hear. When they express themselves, it is done in a way that reflects Human Value. In sharing their thoughts and feelings in a manner that safeguards relational connections, leaders with integrity also demonstrate the character strength of social intelligence.  People with integrity are not naysayers because, in addition to integrity, they also possess the character strength of hope (which includes optimism). When they speak, their comments are sincere, constructive and intended to advance their team’s work, rather than to impede it.

Examples of Integrity in Action

Ann Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox Corporation, had a reputation for being candid.  Shortly after becoming CEO, she announced that Xerox’s business model was unsustainable and that the company would confront reality then make the tough decisions necessary to restore the Xerox’s competitiveness. One employee told the press, “part of her DNA is to tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Result: Because of her integrity, Ann Mulcahy gained the trust of Xerox employees. They pulled together, gave their best efforts and returned Xerox to profitability. One Xerox board member described the turnaround as a “minor miracle.”

After Goodyear Tire lost money in 1990 (the first time in 60 years), the board persuaded Stan Gault, a Goodyear director and former CEO of Rubbermaid, to come out of retirement and replace Goodyear’s CEO. When Gault arrived, he began to unplug lights and unscrew light bulbs in the former CEO’s large office to reduce costs. He ate in the company cafeteria with the rest of the employees and got rid of executive parking spaces.  The word spread like wildfire among Goodyear employees that Gault believed “thrift is a virtue.” When Gault then asked all Goodyear employees to help reduce the company’s bloated costs, they already knew their leader walked the talk.

Result: Goodyear employees responded to Gault’s integrity and plea to reduce costs. As a result, the company paid down its debt and invested in new research and development.   Soon thereafter, Goodyear launched the newly developed “Aquatread” tire. It was a huge success and Goodyear was restored to profitability.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has 20 values that comprise what is referred to as “The Ritz-Carlton Basics.” Each day, in a brief session called the “Daily Lineup,” supervisors review one of the 20 values with their staff and each Monday all Ritz-Carlton Hotels world-wide celebrate an example of a staff member who went beyond the call of duty to live up to one of the 20 Ritz-Carlton Basics.

Result: These practices help maintain a high level of organizational integrity because employees know Ritz-Carton’s values and are more likely to apply them. The Ritz-Carlton’s integrity has contributed to the organization receiving all the major awards bestowed by the hospitality industry and leading consumer organizations.

Five Actions You Can Take to Develop Integrity as a Leader

  1. Be a model for your team. It is critical for you to be consistent and clear about your ethical standards. Strive to provide facts, not smokescreens, speak up even when it may be risky to do so, and challenge any system that encourages or rewards dishonesty and unethical behavior.
  2. Be a model for ethical behavior. Ensure you are consistent, open, and clear with your ethical standards and expectations. Encourage your team to express concerns about questionable practices and take the time to review any ethical concerns and your team will provide open, candid feedback.
  3. Don’t be a political animal. Being competent in your job is the most effective method of achieving success. Avoid being political by increasing your own awareness of political behavior. Start by listing the tactics you are aware of and ensure you’re not exhibiting these behaviors. Then ensure you always share recognition, be a team player, acknowledge people for their unique knowledge and talents, and set SMART objectives to help with unbiased measurements of performance.
  4. Be a risk taker and stand up for what you believe in. There is a direct correlation between risk, success, and excellence. These are key components in maintaining a competitive advantage. When standing up for what you believe in, approach any adversity with a positive attitude and always work to gain support and cooperation from key people in your immediate or broader team. Be sure to encourage others to speak up and voice their viewpoints.
  5. Be a role model for living your organization’s values. If you demonstrate that you are a proud member of your organization and live its values, and explicitly articulate to your team why you’re proud and why these things are important, they will soon follow. Walk the talk, be an example of what you want your employees to be and ensure your performance reflects the standards you expect from your team.

Remember that people will not follow a leader they do not trust. Trust is earned through, among other things, integrity. Great leaders -- trusted leaders -- demonstrate integrity.  This leads to gaining the confidence of those around them. These people then become dedicated employees, trusted friends, and strong supporters of shared goals.

More From Michael Lee Stallard

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Leading with Character: Humility

Michael Lee Stallard, president and cofounder of Connection Culture Group, speaks, teaches and consults on leadership, organizational culture and employee engagement. He is the author of Connection Culture and Fired Up or Burned Out. Follow him on his blogTwitterFacebookGoogle+ or LinkedIn.

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