(Subtitle 1: Nine signs of an integrated life)
(Subtitle 2: Nine things to look for in a prospective leader)
(Subtitle 3: Why you love your representative but hate Congress)
Year in and year out, it’s the number one answer to what people want in their leaders, regardless of the arena. It’s more important than technical competence, talent, or even being nice. “It” is integrity.
In election years integrity is rolled out as the reason you should hire Candidate A over Candidate B. And yet who hasn’t shuddered at the extremes to which people in the high-profile political, business or ministry realm are examined for any cracks in their moral foundation or skeletons in their closets?
Hardly a season passes where we aren’t wagging our heads at another icon of power being exposed; Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino is the latest, but hardly the last. Soon we’ll be hearing some new cautionary tale about how someone laden with talent and brains lost their moral compass in the magnetic field of leadership power.
Hey, I get it. Both sides of it. I understand why integrity is so vital from a follower’s perspective, and so elusive from a leader’s perspective. I’ve also learned the hard way how difficult it can be to restore once you’ve lost it.
But it’s important to go beyond buzzwords and stop crowing about hypocrisy. When we’re talking about integrity, what, exactly, are we looking for? When you are about to select a leader in the making, what evidence are you looking for that he or she is a person of integrity? Or when your integrity has, um, “hit the ditch” (sorry, Coach), where do you start rebuilding it?
Here’s a place to start. Here are nine signs of an integrated life. No one lives this perfectly. But people who value integrity in their lives and leadership will be pointed in this direction:
1. Consistency between public and private values.
Ever see the leader at the press conference going on about diversity, then mouth off in private about a person who is different? Ever watch a leader completely morph before your eyes when the cameras started rolling, the worship band started playing, or they knew people were watching?
Integrity means that the person you are in public is consistent with who you are when nobody’s looking, or where only your closest confidants are around. The real key to this is being willing to let others in to see what your private values are in the first place – and addressing the ones that need some maturity or correction.
2. Personal adherence to your own standards.
“Practice what you preach” is a cliché, but it’s still true. Different people have different codes of conduct for different reasons. And yes, those codes evolve over time. But integrity means whatever code you’re judging others by or proclaiming is the one you also live by?
In leadership what this means is that you don’t let your position make you the exception to the rule. CEOs aren’t too good to serve if you value service in others. If you expect your employees to keep a certain schedule, you go first. In fact, get there first. If you expect them to meet their deadlines, make sure to meet yours.
3. Positive regard for self and others.
You don’t have to approve to accept. You don’t have to agree to show respect. But you do have to have consistency between the way you regard yourself and the way you respect others. People with integrity don’t feel obligated to choose between liking themselves and liking their customers, coworkers or employees. They can do both.
In leadership this extends to having respect for adversaries, competitors, or even critics. But not at the expense of your own self-respect. Bottom line: stop beating yourself up and distancing yourself from others.
4. The ability to reconcile conflicts.
Conflicts are the ultimate test of the integrity of a relationship. At issue is whether you value the relationship over the issue, or whether you seek to maintain a relationship even when issues threaten to divide. You don’t have to agree on everything; it’s ridiculous to try. But you also don’t have to allow relationships to disrupt or disorient relationships. When all else fails, learn the magic of these two words: “I’m sorry.”
Being a leader doesn’t exempt you from this, especially when you’re the cause of the conflict. Be the first to apologize when needed. Be the first to reach out across the awkward silence of hurt feelings or offenses. Show your constituents that you prioritize relationship as much as you do getting the job done. People are your job in most cases.
5. Adherence to appropriate sexual boundaries.
Here’s the way the logic of the world works: What you do behind closed doors is your business, and I’m not here to judge. But if I find out what went on behind those closed doors, not only will I judge you, I’ll crucify you. Fair? Hardly. Honest? Nope. But it is what it is.
Integrity means honoring the boundaries between respecting and caring for someone and crossing the line and using them as a source for pleasure. And before you whip out that “two consenting adults” crap, may I point out that what you consent to today may control you tomorrow? And by the next day it may consume you and your ability to lead.
6. Faithfulness to your personal commitments.
Before you ever make promises to others, you will make commitments to yourself. Sometimes these come in the form of goals or lifestyle changes. Sometimes they come as matters of personal or spiritual discipline. Sometimes they show up as private commitments to closest friends or family members, but the force of the commitment is a promise you are making first to yourself or God. Integrity simply asks, If I can’t keep the commitments I make to myself or God, why should I expect others to trust me when I make commitments to them?
The leadership program I work with drills this principle into every student: Before I can lead others, I must first lead myself. Your constituents need to see you keeping your personal commitments. It’s where they learn to trust you, and where they come to believe that they can keep the personal commitments they have made.
7. Fulfillment of your verbal and contractual commitments.
Know how the Bible describes people who make commitments they don’t keep? “The sacrifice of fools” (Ecclesiastes 5:1). One of the simplest definitions of integrity I know: When you tell someone you’re going to do something, do you do it? When you commit to a project, do you deliver when you said you would?
The computer world calls undelivered software promises “vaporware.” That’s a pretty good description of anybody who is “all boots and no cattle.” In leadership, nothing will brand you as non-credible faster than empty promises or failed commitments.
8. Going beyond the minimum of what others require of you.
Under-promise and over-deliver. Do more than just get by. This shows the people around you that you are committed to excellence in more than just word, but also in practice. It also reflects what you truly believe in. Classic example: A farmer who works just for the paycheck goes home when it’s dark. A farmer who believes in farming puts lights on his tractor and keeps working into the night.
What does this have to do with integrity? Everything. It means you are willing to lead by example, even when you don’t have a leadership position or receive immediate rewards. People with integrity recognize excellence as its own reward.
9. The ability to give and receive genuine love.
People with integrity recognize that the most fundamental need of every human is to give and receive love. They give and receive it because they themselves need to be loved, and they won’t ask for what they are unwilling to give.
In leadership, somebody has to go first in praising the qualities and performance of others. Somebody had to lead out in creating a culture of kindness and thoughtfulness. Somebody has to take the initiative empathize with, pray for, listen to, and support people with problems. All your crowing about leaving personal problems at home ring hollow to the employee who just found out she has cancer, or who just found the note from his estranged wife saying she won’t be coming home. Integrity stops to care because that’s how you want others to treat you.
These nine qualities didn’t just randomly show up on a list. You can find them woven throughout here. I just applied them to different expressions of leadership.
We’re all a work in progress. My concern for you and me is not where we may be today, but where we’re headed. Let’s show the people in our realm of influence that integrity is more than a cynical, boring election-year buzzword.