Integrity comes about when no one is watching

(Editor's note: This is part 9 of a 10-part series examining the building blocks of effective L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. This time? I = INTEGRITY.)

"Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." ---Mark TwainWhat would you do if you found your competitor's customer list in your inbox one morning? Would you keep it? Would you use it? Would you destroy it? Would you return it? A tiny demon with a pitchfork, oversized ears and a red tail will be camped on one shoulder, urging you to keep it and chase down every one of them to make them your customers. Perched on your other shoulder, in a white robe with a golden halo, is your ally, I = INTEGRITY, urging you to ignore the temptation and do the right thing. She's certain you know exactly what she means.

What is Integrity? People often use it as a synonym for honesty, but it's more than that. Honesty may be the chicken stock that brings it all together, but there are also other ingredients to consider. One portion that we've already discussed is R = Reliability, an immutable component because your Integrity is always in the spotlight and must be exercised consistently and without exception. It’s not an optional tool to be used only in convenient situations.

Similar to Reliability, Integrity may be irretrievable after only a single breach ... but you’ll need to consistently demonstrate your Integrity in challenging circumstances ...  in ways that may be costly, inconvenient, and even painful … if you want people to know you have it. It may be the most demanding characteristic of a successful leader because there's often a steep price, whether paid in financial, emotional or intellectual capital, to be a person of Integrity in the most demanding of circumstances.

Integrity is part of the ante to get in the game. Without it, nothing else really matters. If people can't trust that you'll always do the right thing ... consistently and reliably ... you have little hope of being a successful leader.

Integrity is also an integral part of building trust, and includes doses of both transparency and accountability. Transparency means a level of openness, of allowing people to see you operate in the “spotlight of leadership” and to judge you by your conduct and behavior. Likewise, being accountable for your actions is another measure of your Integrity … owning up to your mistakes, acknowledging your shortcomings and keeping your promises. There’s a strong moral compass embedded in Integrity as well, invoking those principles to strengthen and reinforce your decisions.

Think for a moment about the best boss you ever had or the most effective colleague with whom you've worked. If they're at the top of your list, there’s probably no doubt about their Integrity. You know you can trust them, that they'll act to do the right thing no matter what, and they won't be swayed by emotion, convenience or ego to do the right thing.

Yes, there will sometimes be very dicey questions about the right thing to do. Integrity is far more demanding than simply returning a checkbook you found on the street corner. The recent movie, The Dilemma, posed an interesting challenge in which the character of Vince Vaughn discovered that his best friend’s wife was cheating on him. Should he tell him? Is there a clear standard of Integrity between best friends? Does it require you tell everything? Where do you draw the line?

Examine your own behavior and consider whether you act the same way when no one's looking. Do you always do the right thing? Do you waver in making the right decision even when you know exactly what it should be? Would you prefer to do something different but you know people are watching … so you can't? These are the symptoms of a character weakness that can easily morph into a lack of integrity, the death knell for your leadership career.

The infamous leaders of Enron, WorldCom ... most recently, Bernie Made-Off ... created a terrible impression about the integrity of business leaders. They not only didn't choose to do the right thing, they deliberately chose to do the wrong thing, a clear indictment of an insidious character flaw … yet I'm confident there is a thread in the human character that pretty well knows the right thing to do. Successful executives lead with Integrity and don’t need an interpreter to understand its probity.

The best test of Integrity is really the simplest. If you do the right thing when no one is watching, you’ve got it.


Lary Kirchenbauer is the President of Exkalibur Advisors, providing practical business strategies for middle market businesses. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership, finance and business strategy, and recently hosted a Cash Flow Workshop, “It’s Midnight. Do you Know Where Your Cash Is?” You can subscribe to his newsletter at the Exkalibur web site at You’ll also find a library of valuable resources, including a new video and podcast library as well as articles and insights related to middle market businesses.

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