If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters. — Alan K. Simpson
Like you, I’ve read a lot of books on leadership, self-development, team building, relationships, success, and general happiness. Like you, I read a fair number of blogs, and follow a generous number of smart coaches and thinkers on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. And I’d say this word integrity comes up frequently, whether in a question, as in: “What does integrity mean to you?” or “Is it important for leaders to have integrity and why?”, or in a list, as in: “Top 5 Success Criteria”, or in combination with other qualities or skills in a discussion such as: “How to Communicate More Effectively.”
What I don’t often see is a discussion of how to build and maintain integrity. So here’s my primer on how to begin.
Integrity is often confused with honesty. While these two concepts are very similar, there are some important differences. Let’s start by looking at the definitions of both integrity and honesty from dictionary.com:
in·teg·ri·ty [in-teg-ri-tee] (noun)
1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished
hon·es·ty [on-uh-stee] (noun)
1. the quality or fact of being honest; uprightness and fairness
2. truthfulness, sincerity, or frankness
3. freedom from deceit or fraud
Notice that the emphasis in honesty is to be truthful and free from deceit. This is an important aspect of integrity (see the first definition of integrity). But it is only a part of the picture. The emphasis in integrity is on adherence to ethical principles (which includes honesty) and maintaining wholeness.
Notice that the definition of integrity doesn’t list which principles. This is why there can be discussions on LinkedIn that go on for weeks about the meaning of integrity. Not everyone agrees on which ethical principles are the ones that should be upheld without exception — or whether there should even be exceptions in certain cases. That decision of exceptions, in itself, is an ethical decision based on principles.
The adoption and commitment to ethical principles is a very personal decision. We’re talking about values. Some of those values we claim to share in the United States: freedom to pursue certain activities, or freedom from certain political oppressions, for example. And even those freedoms are hotly debated — how much freedom, for whom, under what circumstances, to what end, and so on. Many of those values we disagree on: Is happiness more important than wisdom? Authenticity? Family? Love? God? Kindness? Fairness?
If I asked you to name your top five values — the ones that guide your life, your decisions, that you do not compromise — could you list them right now, without hesitation? This is an important question to consider because without clarity in regard to our values, living with and in integrity is very difficult. How can you know you are adhering to moral and ethical principles if you don’t know what those principles are? How do you know your character is sound? You might say, “Well, I know I’m not going to go out and kill anyone.” Well, sure, but that situation is likely not causing you a lot of conflict on a daily basis either. It’s not very likely testing your integrity. You are much more likely in conflict about something like one of the below:
- Are you justifying a small cheat on your taxes, counting on the odds to keep you from getting caught?
- Are you engaging in a safe flirtation behind the back of your significant other, knowing that they would be very upset and/or hurt if they found out?
- Are you spending way too much time surfing the internet at work, taking longer lunches than you should, coming in late, leaving early, using sick time instead of vacation, or in some other way cheating your employer of the time and attention they are paying you for?
- Have you been putting off having a difficult conversation with an employee, child, significant other, friend, or other family member because you just don’t want to deal with the issue?
- Are you eating, drinking, sleeping, spending, or smoking too much, and justifying it in some way because you don’t want to face some difficult reality in your life?
- Have you been pushing that same pile of paper around your desk for weeks on end because you would rather do something other than sit down and deal with the filing, task, project, person, problem, decision, or question?
If you started feeling uncomfortable and answered “yes”, “maybe”, or even started justifying a “no” answer to any of the above, you might want to take an honest look at your actions in light of your values. If you easily and honestly answered “no” to every question, OR if you answered “yes” but honestly do not feel any conflict at all, you are likely not challenged by the examples above. No matter what your answers were, looking at your values can be a very empowering and enlightening exercise. Getting clarity about values ensures that we are living with integrity, regardless of how others define their values.Clarify your values by writing them down — no more than five for best results, because you can’t truly dedicate yourself to more than roughly five core principles at a time with great energy and purpose — and then consciously choose actions that align with those values. When you find yourself in conflict, consider your values — your ethical principles — and choose the option that keeps you whole in light of those principles.
Clarifying values so we can live with integrity is certainly not magical and won’t resolve all conflicts or solve all problems — personal or interpersonal, but it is a great place to start. It is also a great starting place for resolving communication conflicts, teamwork issues, and leadership, relationship, and parenting challenges. When we understand others’ values, we can support them in living in integrity just as we ask for their support in helping us do the same.
There may be a lot of things that are important, and your list of core values may not include integrity. But if we stand back and take a global view, considering the overall impact of living in integrity, the quote above begins to beg the question: What else could matter more?