I had a friend in graduate school, who instead of saying goodbye would say “Don’t go changin’!” Of course time does have its way with us – things change, people change. But I think his friendly quip speaks to something meaningful, which is that despite the ravages of time, we need to maintain something constant about ourselves, some core goodness or us-ness. We need to retain our integrity – both in the sense of keeping our true selves intact, as well as in being true to our values, despite the changes and challenges we face that pressure us to abandon them.
Why am I talking about integrity? Because it matters to people and organizations. It matters to people because it makes us happier, healthier, and more effective. And it matters to organizations because through it trust grows, which greases the wheels of interactions between people, especially when values are shared. It is a currency that allows transactions the flow more smoothly and with greater trust. And as organizations are groups of people striving together for some common goal or greater good, they also have the capacity to possess or demonstrate integrity.
Integrity is an important quality in relating to others, because it allows people to predict your behavior and trust that you will act according to their expectations. Integrity also preserves us for ourselves. When the storms of life buffet us about, we can lean on our “pillar” of integrity for support. All too often, however, when faced with life’s larger and more minor calamities, we behave in ways that go against our nature or our values in order to avoid short-term negative consequences. But in leaving the security of our pillars, all we do is float further out into a sea of duplicity and confusion, allowing chaotic forces to guide our behavior, rather than choosing to follow the compass of our values.
Integrity demands that we seek clarity on our values and align our behavior with them. Integrity serves us well – whether it’s a politically volatile situation or one rife with conflict, integrity assures us that we know the wall that is at our backs. We know the things we will and will not stand for and therefore when we must hold our ground, and when it better to bend, give, or make sacrifices. We need to define for ourselves and our organizations what we value. Set out the lines in the sand you are and you are not willing to cross. Understand for yourself and make it clear to others why those lines are there and what purpose they serve. Hold yourself and others accountable for not toeing the line.
Integrity is not something good people have and bad people lack. It is not a personality attribute. It is a quality of character that can be developed through practice. Each time you exert it, you strengthen it like you strengthen a muscle. It does not, however, give you the freedom to hold yourself superior to others or to obstinately defend your position. Integrity also connotes wholeness, which means bringing your whole self to bear on the situations you face, rather than cherry-picking your values.
Knowing what you stand for and staying true to those values, even under duress, makes you a leader worth following, a team member worth supporting, a company worth doing business with. Strengthening your integrity can contribute to your own sense of confidence and courage and solidifies your reputation. Integrity can serve as a lighthouse during life’s storms, showing you the clear path through complexity and ambiguity.
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower