Integrity: The Essential Quality of Leadership

In an executive boardroom, I once heard one of the richest men in America make a statement that I never forgot. “It seems to me,” he said, “that integrity isn't really a value in itself; it is simply the value that guarantees all the other values.”

Whenever I hold a strategic planning session, the first value that all the executives agree on is integrity. Leaders know that integrity, trust, and credibility are the foundations of leadership. Leaders stand up for what they believe in.

Winners Never Cheat

Jon Huntsman, Sr., is a multibillionaire who started a chemical company from scratch and grew it into a $12 billion enterprise. His book, Winners Never Cheat, is filled with stories taken from his own experience in which he steadfastly refused to compromise his principles. Huntsman says that integrity is the reason that he has been as successful as he is. “There are no moral shortcuts in the game of business — or life,” he writes. “There are, basically, three kinds of people: the unsuccessful, the temporarily successful, and those who become and remain successful. The difference is character.”

There are many examples of temporary winners who won by cheating. For a number of years, Enron was cited as one of America's most innovating and daring companies. The CEO of the company knew the most important people in the country, including the president of the United States. Except that Enron's success was built on lies, and the “winners” who headed the company are case studies in lack of integrity. You may have heard of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, the fallen CEO and COO, respectively, of Enron. They dominated the headlines for many months, while Jon Huntsman, Sr. (the father of the 2012 presidential candidate), continues to run his billion-dollar company far from the limelight. Leaders with integrity may not be the most famous or flashy of leaders, and they don't care. Integrity means doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. And that's what makes success.

Leaders keep their promises. They give promises carefully, even reluctantly, but once they have given that promise, they follow through on that promise without fail. And they always tell the truth. Jack Welch calls it “candor.” He believes that if you are afraid of candor, then you don't have the guts to be an effective leader. You are going to surround yourself with yes people who will say what you want to hear instead of saying the truth. A leader with integrity is not afraid to face the truth. Welch calls this the reality principle, or “seeing the world as it really is, not as you wish it to be.” It is perhaps the most important principle of leadership and dependent on integrity because it demands truthfulness and honesty. Many companies and organizations fail because they don't follow the reality principle.

Integrity means telling the truth even if the truth is ugly. Better to be honest than to delude others, because then you are probably deluding yourself, too.

Leaders need to be confident, but they also need to be open to the idea that they could be wrong. There are many leaders who eventually fail because they refuse to question their own assumptions or conclusions. Alec Mackenzie once wrote, “Errant assumptions lie at the root of every failure.”

There's a difference between being confident and blind. Let's face it, in today's world of rapid change, there is a possibility that you are partially wrong or even completely wrong. Maybe you are not wrong, but just opening yourself to that possibility is going to make you a more effective leader because it will open your mind to new ideas or new thinking.

No Exceptions

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln worked as a clerk at a general store. One day, he realized a customer had overpaid by a few pennies. Lincoln set out to find her, walking several miles to return the pennies to the customer. The story got around and soon Lincoln earned the nickname “Honest Abe.” Later, his unimpeachable honesty and integrity were key factors in helping President Lincoln lead the United States through the most traumatic period in its history, when the very survival of the nation was at stake. With the exception of George Washington, Lincoln is the most admired and respected president of the United States for what he was able to accomplish, but at the heart of his accomplishments was the same integrity that pushed a young Lincoln to return a few pennies to that customer.

There should be no exceptions to honesty and fairness. For Abraham Lincoln, the fact that the customer overpaid by just a few pennies made no difference — the fact is that she was owed money and it didn't matter how much. If you are willing to compromise on the small situations, the ones that “don't matter that much,” then it becomes very easy to compromise on the big circumstances. Integrity is a state of mind and is not situational.

Leaders always err on the side of fairness, especially when other people are unfair. As a matter of fact, the true mark of leadership is how fair you can be when other people are treating you unfairly.

Seven Steps to Leadership

Let's finish by looking at seven steps or tenets to becoming a leader:

1. Desire. You must genuinely want the experience and the responsibility of leadership.

2. Decision. Make a decision that you are going to pay the price and practice these tenets of leadership.

3. Determination. All leaders have great determination in the formative parts of their careers, both to become leaders and to stay leaders.

4. Discipline. Self-discipline is key. Your ability to gain self-mastery and self-control will be the critical determinant of how high you rise to the top levels of leadership.

5. Role modeling. Learn from leaders that you admire; think about how you can incorporate their behaviors into your behaviors.

6. Study. Read books on leadership, take courses on leadership, and learn what effective leadership is. Always think about how you can apply what you are studying.

7. Practice, practice, practice. Leadership can be learned. Leadership must be learned. Leadership is the greatest and most pressing need of our civilization. Today as never before, you are needed in the ranks of leadership.

If you practice the ideas and techniques that this book has talked about and you repeat them over and over again, then you will create a clear mental picture of yourself as a leader and you will inevitably become the leader that you dream of being.

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