Archive for integrity

What else matters?

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

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?

Integrity vs. Convenience by Michelle Kunz

Carmine Coyote’s blog entry for September 21 asks a very important question: Can you display integrity only when it suits you? Inspired by Peter Vajda’s article “Integrity at work – how do you stack up?” Carmine argues that striving for absolute integrity adds undue stress and guilt to already overwhelmed individuals who may find that under certain circumstances it makes sense to simply compromise their integrity in favor of simplifying a tense or demanding situation.

Peter Vajda states that integrity is “a lot like being pregnant. Either you’re pregnant, or you aren’t. There’s no middle ground.” Either we act with integrity or we don’t. This is a tough position to take, and his quiz asks some very hard questions. I cannot pass with 100% perfection. The perfection word has tripped us up again. That and a lack of clarity around what is integrity.

What is integrity?

Integrity, according to Encarta, is “the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards.” The second and third definitions are also helpful in extending our understanding: “the state of being complete or undivided” and “the state of being sound or undamaged.” Taken together, one who acts with integrity not only possesses and steadfastly adheres to high moral principles or standards, but is also complete, undivided and undamaged. This state of being complete, undivided and undamaged is due to the fact that such an individual does not act in a way that divides them against themselves. They hold themselves in a state of deep respect and honor.

Whose standards?

The problems we experience with integrity begin when we fail to stop and ask ourselves whose standards we possess and expect ourselves to adhere to. It makes sense that whenever those standards are externally imposed we will at some point find ourselves in conflict with them and probably choose to ignore them. There may or may not be an external consequence for that choice, but most people will experience some sense of guilt or shame for going against principles they claim to honor but fail to actually follow in their real life actions.

A better choice is to take the time to define our own values and standards. When we narrow down our most important values to no more than five (it is almost impossible to focus on any more than about five) what we have left is a set of core defining principles around which all of our actions and attitudes can be compared. When we align our actions, attitudes and beliefs with these core principles, we are living in integrity. Because they are prinicples we defined, we see the direct correlation between living these values and an improvement in some area of our life, depending on what values we defined. Making choices becomes easier, saying no becomes easier, and guilt is manageable because when we say no to something external, we say yes to something internal.


A mid-level manager is working 60 hour weeks. His wife complains frequently that he is missing his son’s soccer games and isn’t home to engage with her. She questions his values around family. He experiences a great deal of shame and guilt because he thinks he ought to be a better husband and father, but he doesn’t know how to balance the demands of his job with the demands of his family.

During a coaching session, we define his core values as Family, Financial Freedom, Authenticity, Integrity and Honesty. As we explore what these values mean to him, we uncover that he has deep concerns regarding paying his mortgage and a strong desire to earn a promotion which may be available to him in the next year so he can provide some additional discretionary income to his family. He has a strong commitment to providing for his family’s financial future, and a desire to fulfill his wife’s desire for nice things in their home.

On closer inspection, it turns out that his working long hours serves two of his five core values: Family and Financial Freedom. By working long and hard he has a better chance at getting that promotion, and therefore providing for his family’s financial future and filling their immediate desires. He has not seen it in these terms before because on the surface it looks like his values have been in conflict. But the long hours are less about his career and more about his family. Where he is out of alignment most is in Authenticity and Honesty. He needs to have a discussion with his wife to express with authenticity and honesty how his working long hours serves those other two core values. This will put him into better integrity over all. With her feedback he can make adjustments if necessary as he gains a better understanding of his family’s financial needs and desires.

At first glance, it may have looked as if the answer was “work fewer hours and spend more time with your family”. Perhaps after receiving feedback from his wife the answer will be more along the lines of “work 55 hours and spend one hour per weekday playing with your son”. The point here is that until you define your core values, you don’t really know what the answer is. What appears to be the answer might be a lousy compromise that will make you feel guilty about something else. You end up trading guilt for guilt.

Relationships – Integrity = Lack of Trust

When people choose convenience based integrity, which means they adhere to high principles only when it is convenient, no one knows what to expect. Who defines when it is convenient? When is that definition made public? Typically that decision is made on the spur of the moment and under duress. Or in rebellion. Or in any number of other situations which are purely self serving. How can anyone count on you when your integrity changes without warning? Trust simply cannot exist under such conditions, and this is a requirement for powerful, engaging, dynamic leadership.

Trust requires reliability — people have to know what to expect from you. Your commitment to your self-defined set of values makes you reliable. Your actions align themselves in a way that makes sense because they are defined by your values. Even if people do not agree with your values, they at least know what to expect, and this increases their ability to trust you.

What many people dislike about absolute integrity is that it requires absolute responsibility for our actions. When we find ourselves out of alignment, we cannot affix blame to outside circumstances or other people. We have only ourselves to look to for accountability. And this is a key difference.

Blame vs. Accountability

When you practice convenience integrity, you get an easy way out any time you need an excuse as to why you choose an action which does not align itself with your values. You simply blame it on the extenuating circumstances. “The boss required it.” “I needed a break.” The assumption is that you’ve done something wrong and you need to provide a reason why. When you practice absolute integrity, there is a better choice: accountability.

Accountability and responsibility are interchangeable. Blame, however, is not. Blame is always negative. Accountability and responsibility are neutral. This difference is crucial. When we look within to examine our behavior in a situation where our actions did not align with our values, we can give ourselves permission to be neutral. We can simply be in discovery mode. What were the circumstances? What were we thinking and feeling? What other values came into play? What other choices might we have made instead which would have better served our core values? What kept us from making those choices? What can we do differently next time?

This mode of discovery allows growth to occur. Convenience integrity does not allow for growth because of the convenience factor. It’s like eating fast food: no work, little nutrition. The blame game encourages excuses rather than discovery, and we go nowhere. But we still feel guilt, even while we feel relief. Because we know that we have divided ourselves and we are now unreliable.
Powerful leaders know it requires courage and inner strength to live with integrity. They do not fool themselves into thinking it requires perfection. They realize the values they define are there as a guide for their actions, and they seek to choose those actions mindfully. When they make a mistake, they freely admit it, learn from their experience and adapt. This adaptive ability strengthens their alignment with their core values. As a result, they become more reliable and trustworthy, which encourages others to have greater confidence in their ability to lead.

Excellence is Giving by Michelle Kunz

Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)

I have come to believe that giving and receiving are really the same.
Giving and receiving – not giving and taking.
— Joyce Grenfell

Perfection is taking.
Excellence is giving.

In the second quote, Joyce Grenfell makes an important distinction between receiving and taking. This distinction also gets to the heart of the important difference between perfection and excellence for the purpose of our discussion.

Tracing our steps, perfectionism begins when we become vested in our being right. We become entrenched in the status quo, defending it hotly and building great arguments against change. We gradually come to fear all that change represents as we continue to find every excuse why our way is the best way. This fear leads to anger and frustration when others cannot or will not conform to our ideas about the way things ought to be. As we tighten our grip on our perceived sense of order, we drive others to anger and frustration as they feel our rigidity cutting off their creativity and individuality. Finally, we apply our version of right and wrong to challenges we face and mire ourselves in the tyranny of judgment.

Given the fear-oriented, rigid position of the perfectionist’s view of the world, it is understandable that such a person might be tempted to adopt a “What’s in it for me?” attitude toward challenge, including change, risk and sacrifice. Fear encourages us to see the possibility of loss and/or failure, and as a result, we grasp at everything we have now and what little we see might be available to us in the near future. We want to get and keep a tight hold, in case it all disappears, because this is what we fear most.

The dynamic created by a grasping orientation is essentially one of taking. We reach out and bring to us anything within our reach, whether it is right for us or not. We do this because we are collecting all we can against the possibility of ultimate loss and/or failure. This stockpiling of successes and material goods is an empty endeavor in the end because one can never fill the hole that fear creates deep within.

How are giving and receiving the same?

When we shift our orientation to one of excellence, which is grounded in a willingness to be wrong, gives us confidence to take risks, empowers us and others to be spontaneous, and looks for ways in which to accept what is in the current moment context, we free ourselves to see possibilities instead of failure. This freedom results in an openness to generosity — in both directions. Rather than look for “What’s in it for me?” we begin to shift to “What’s in it for us?” or even the more empowering “What’s in it for you?”

This openness allows us to not only give freely, but also to receive without suspicion or guilt. When we are stuck in a “What’s in it for me?” mentality, it is easy to believe that everyone else is stuck there with us. When we move away to a more open, generous belief system, it doesn’t matter. We take people as they are and appreciate whatever we find because we are looking for possibilities.

Why is giving important in building powerful leadership?

When we begin to give freely and actively seek the advantage for the other person, a marvelous thing happens. Powerful leadership begins to take root. To quote BNI’s motto: “Givers Get.” What do they get? It’s hard to predict exactly, and true givers don’t try to manipulate the outcome. Some of what might come back includes:

  • Trust — people trust those who have their interests truly at the center of all they do
  • Admiration — people admire those who commit their energies to advancing the common good
  • Respect — people respect those who dedicate their time to helping others win
  • Wisdom — when we listen deeply to what others need we learn more about ourselves and the world around us
  • Humility — giving to others shines a mirror back on all that we have and helps us feel grateful
  • Authenticity — giving deeply of ourselves removes the filters we keep in place when we withhold, requiring our true selves to come into focus
  • Integrity — aligning our values with principles which do not change greatly simplifies the challenge of walking our talk

These are some of the qualities of a powerful leader. Truly great leaders aren’t always made. Sometimes they simply are. Allowing that to take place can be a much bigger challenge than acquiring an impressive resume or the accoutrements of success. Great leaders know how to let go and allow their best selves to brilliantly shine.