Leadership Integrity: Touchy-Feely Crap?

October 15, 2009

One of my favorite bloggers, Mary Jo Asmus, wrote an article recently entitled “Staying in Integrity.” She correctly pointed out that integrity is hard to define.  I’ve written about integrity previously in my articles entitled “Leadership Credibility,” and “Trust.”  I see a lot of folks confusing integrity with honesty.  Honesty is necessary for integrity, but it’s not enough. 

When people look at us to determine if we have integrity, the key thing they are looking for is an alignment of our values with theirs.  Do we speak and act in ways consistent with the things they value? Even if we have impeccable honesty and do what we say we will do, if the things we say and do are not things that our followers value and care about, then we have not passed the integrity test in their eyes.

So to have integrity, the first and most important thing you need to do as a leader is to shut up! It is impossible to listen if you are doing all the talking, and you need to listen to your followers if you want to have any chance of discerning what they really value.  When your followers feel safe enough with you to share the things they really value, engage them in dialogue.  Ask questions to make sure you really understand not just what they care about, but also why they care about it. 

Next, you are going to need to speak – about yourself.  Your followers need to know who you are, what you value, and why you value it, so please share these things.  Be transparent, clear, and consistent as you develop for your followers the story of you.  They need this story to make sense of who you are and why you do the things you do; without it you are simply a black box.  You need to come to grips with the fact that your folks are going to talk about you, so give them something to talk about.

Now you are ready to begin speaking and acting consistent with what we say we will do.  Remember, you can’t credit yourself with integrity.  Only your followers can credit you with integrity, so you better have a credible system for keeping your finger on the pulse of what they are thinking.

Let me suggest the most credible system – relationship.  Form real relationships with your direct reports.  Teach, train, and coach them to do the same with their direct reports and make quality relationships a formal part of your accountability, reward, and promotion systems.  The only way to make integrity anything more than lofty rhetoric is to make it a formal part of your operating system.

Sound like touchy-feely crap to you?  Well remember this – if you fail the integrity test your people won’t trust you.  If your people don’t trust you, those that can’t find another job will never realize peak performance.  Your customers won’t be impressed by the poor service and substandard products, so prepare for the pain of trying to maintain your bottom line with an evaporating top line.

Any leader that is serious about results is serious about integrity. 

What do you think?  Have you worked with people that were honest but lacked integrity as I’ve described it here?  Does your leader’s integrity affect you or is my head in the clouds?

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  1. What’s integrity to you? « hour9 | October 16, 2009
  1. Defining integrity is relatively easy. It is the alignment of our thoughts, affections, and purposes with healthy conscience. Integrity is expressed in our “being” over time and creates “sustained proactive influence”. Leadership and the conveyance of integrity are organic, and it takes time before the season of harvest! Yes, integrity is crucial, and not “touchy-feely” at all; even though it is quite palpable.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome to my site, Thomas! Totally concur that allignment is a core concept with integrity. Love your thoughts, but I still strongly believe the question with integtrity is not do I think I have it, but do others think I have it. Thanks! Bret

    Thomas Waterhouse Reply:

    Hi Bret. I am loving your site, your writing, and this process. I was unclear, or not thorough enough as evidenced by my review of comments. For me, “sustained proactive influence” is about others seeing what they believe is integrity in my “being”, and being influenced by it. Believe me, I am all too clear about my capacity for deluding myself on such matters! 🙂 Hence, I agree totally with you! I really look forward to learning in this place! Thank you.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Tom. I purposefully tried to narrow our focus to “leadership” integrity to make this process of figuring out what it is more meaningful and manageable to those that might land here. Your concept of sustained proactive influence is a solid leadership concept. I like it. Thanks! Bret

  2. Hi Bret,

    Of course, “Integrity” in the title of your post caught my eye! More importantly, your statements about listening are like music to my ears.

    Why? Because last year, I looked at all of the action plans for leaders that I had coached over the years to see what it was, exactly, that they had worked on.

    The single biggest action item? Learning (or re-learning) to listen. Simple. But very, very hard. And very key, as you’ve pointed out, to integrity.

    I’m glad that integrity is moving out of the touchy-feely realm in business. Thanks for a great, thoughtful post.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Also about sharing, Mary Jo, and I think a lot of leaders struggle with that part as much or more than the listening part. If we have no idea who you really are and what you stand for and why, your actions and decisions lack the context needed for people to credit you with integrity. Thanks! Bret

  3. Tom Glover says:

    Hi Bret,

    I think you are dead on that with integrity it isn’t whether I think I have it but rather do others think I have it. Because no matter what I think, if others don’t see my integrity, I don’t have it. Period.

    But I am having trouble coming to terms with your idea that “When people look at us to determine if we have integrity, the key thing they are looking for is an alignment of our values with theirs.”

    I guess I’m thinking here from the viewpoint of tolerance and equality. I may not share the same values as someone different than me, but what allows me to accept them is their integrity. I may not even particularly like someone (maybe because their values are different than mine) but as long as they act with integrity I’m alright following.

    Now that I really think back, I certainly haven’t always shared values with those leaders that I have followed, but as soon as their integrity was a question in my mind, it was time for me to move on.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Appreciate the thoughts, Tom! But from your perspective, what is integrity and what does it mean to act with integrity? It can’t be simply acting with honesty, that would leave us with our orginal problem. Is it acting true to your values even if I reject those values? If so, then characters like Bin Laden have a lot of leadership integrity.

    I’ve worked for people that did not have integrity, but I did not trust them as far as I could throw them. Cooperate, yes, trust, no.

    Thanks! Bret

    Tom Glover Reply:

    Yeah, that’s the conundrum that I’ve gotten myself to. Integrity certainly has to be more than acting with honesty. I think it does have to do with acting true to our own values.

    I think using Bin Laden for this example is perfect. While we abhor his methods and presumably his values (though how can we know for absolute sure having not actually met him) he clearly has those who follow him. So are they following because they agree with his values and continue to follow because of his leadership integrity?

    There lies the conundrum for me. Here is someone that clearly has devote followers that must agree with his values and think that he has integrity as a leader, but yet we vilify him as evil. So doesn’t some like this have leadership integrity or not? I just don’t know.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    In the eyes of HIS followers, Bin Laden’s integrity is solid. Even though we might not like it, unlike honesty which can be objectively evaluated, integrity will always be in the eye of the beholder. That’s why as leaders, we have to keep our eye on your beholders. Thanks! Bret

  4. Peg Rowe says:

    Forming real relationships, modeling this behavior and expecting it from leaders throughout an organization will create valuable “listening” posts. This provides real feedback, as you point out the opportunity to keep you fingers on the pulse.

    Leaders with these relationships have the necessary feedback to course correct. In the daily act of living our values, we all miss the mark occasionally, feedback is essential.

    Leadership integrity leaves an indelible imprint on an organization and it’s people.

    Thanks to you and Mary Jo Asmus for this dialogue on Integrity.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Peg, you bring up a GREAT point that leadership integrity does NOT imply perfection, but it does require correction. We ALL screw up. Integrity means you course correct and you don’t make that same mistake over and over again. Never thought of it this way before, but integrity and learning are cousin concepts. Thanks! Bret

    Claudia Clark Reply:

    Establishing integrity in the eyes of others requires correction, but public correction is key. A leader corrects and EXPLAINS. Acknowledging misdirection (mistakes), explaining the problem, then making the correction, not only models values alignment, it also affirms the safety of the workplace — errors aren’t a disaster to hide, they are simply missteps that can be corrected.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I totally concur that for the leader the correction has to be public for all the reasons you point out. GREAT comment, Claudia. Welcome to my website and hope to see more of you here!! Bret

  5. Wally Bock says:

    Wow. Lots to chew on here.

    I have a different definition of integrity than the one that you use. For me a person has integrity when their behavior and their values match.

    And I wish I could agree with Mary Jo that issues like this are moving out of the shadows. I think they are, but I think it will be temporary, like it always seems to be. After we have a crisis of leadership, we talk a lot about ethics and integrity etc for a while, and then the discussion reverts to success and achievement and winning.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Unfortunately, I have to concur with you Wally. I think integrity will always get mostly lip service and always take a back seat to success and achievement. But the paradox is you can achieve more WITH integrity than you can without it. IMHO. Thanks! Bret

    Mary Jo Asmus Reply:

    Wally and Bret,

    My view is from behind the scenes of leadership. When the door is closed, and I am working with my clients, they strive to have and exhibit integrity. It’s an uphill climb when you are shoved out into the cold,cruel world of business where integrity is currently at a premium.

    The world is changing. There are lots and lots of good leaders out there who have integrity, and who work at it every day. I choose to believe that in the war between integrity and lip service, integrity will win (in my lifetime).

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    The big test of integrity, one where I believe many senior executives are failing, is alignment when the pressure it on. It’s easy to walk and talk with in popular ways when things are going well, but when the times are tough and the building is burning, how do you act? That’s when all eyes are on the leader, so the crucible is critical. Thanks, MJ!

    PS: Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post. Another question on leadership where I would very much value your perspective.

  6. Kevin Kim says:

    Hmm…I’ll be honest. I went to a lot of different places in my head as I thought about this. Here are my definitions of integrity and honesty and I added one that talks about the alignment of values to followers:

    – integrity: staying ethical in business, leadership and relational practices and having values that fit within those contexts.
    – honesty: doing what you say you are going to do aka acting according to your values.
    – love: the ability to listen and care about the values of the individuals on your team and relentlessly pursuing their success.

    Just a slight spin on your definition of integrity. Thanks to all who contributed on comments, I feel challenged.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Kevin, great thoughts! I am with you on honesty and OK with Love. But again with integrity, we can’t define it as ethics because, well, that’s what ethics is. Integrity has an action orientation. We only know you have integrity by watching what you do and listening to what you say. So I like the “staying” part of your concept. Thanks for sharing! Bret