Integrity means “principled” or “upright.” There’s another less-well-known meaning to integrity: it’s the idea of being integrated or whole. I’ve noticed that often people who trumpet integrity lack it. Given that warning shot, let’s talk about it anyway.
Integrity: being who you are
Integrity is being who you are, without duplicity or hypocrisy. A lack of integrity might manifest itself as a person saying different things based on who they are with at the time. It might look like saying one thing is true but acting as if another thing is true.
Many of us are probably tempted to say and do things at various points in our life to “fit in.” It’s natural. We don’t want to offend anyone needlessly. So we don’t say what we think. A desire to avoid rocking the boat is how an O-ring problem led to the Challenger disaster in the space shuttle program: engineers spoke up about the problem, but they were afraid of offending the wrong person, so they edited themselves.
Integrity means knowing who you are and being that person or organization. One of my convictions is that our community needs people to be who they are. We need to be people who speak up for what we see and bring our viewpoint to the table. It doesn’t mean being a jerk, but it does mean being true to who we are.
Integrity: not being who you are not
Why do people and organizations sometimes lack integrity? That’s the $1,000,000 question. There are a bunch of reasons. One reason we lack integrity is that it can be expensive. The cost of telling the truth is a cost we’re unwilling to pay, whether as an individual or as a business. Long term it can be more costly to hide reality than to just own up to facts and do the right thing.
Another reason we lack integrity is that we have not defined our market. We haven’t clearly identified who we are and what we do. We’re trying to keep everyone happy and losing our identity in the process. A business has to prioritize between quality, speed, and cost. You can deliver two but not three. If you know which two are your jam and can be open about it, then you don’t have to pretend to be good at all three.
When I see a lack of integrity in organizations, it is often due to a disconnect between the professed values of the organization or business and a particular leader or employee. Sometimes we need to let people go from our organizations because they don’t understand who we are and who we are not. It’s also possible that as an employee you are part of an organization that doesn’t fit your values, and you can sense that you need to find a place with more integrity to do your work.
Integrity: being whole
Integrity is being who you are. It’s not being who you are not. What does it mean to be whole? If you want to have integrity, you have to know who you are. Once you know who you are, it will become clear who you are not.
I remember working with a person who would tell someone from our organization one reason we were doing something. Then this person would turn around and tell someone else a different (and incompatible) reason we were doing the same thing. This person often operated in this way. Some might argue this is smart organizational politics, but I find it difficult to accept this tactic. Rather than communicating openly and honestly, this person was kicking cans full of conflict down the road into the organization’s future for someone else to discover.
Integrity is about being whole. It’s about knowing who you are, what you do, and what your market is. My contention is that people corner themselves into a lack of integrity because they don’t have these questions figured out. Once you’ve intentionally said “yes” to something in your life, it allows you to intentionally say “no” to other things.
Closing Out Leadership Series
This is the 16th of 16 installments in the series of columns I’ve been writing for leaders and aspiring leaders. It feels like a natural topic for me to write about, so this has been a good fit while I have been out of state for military training. Thanks for reading and interacting over the past few months. My hope is to take all these columns, rework them, and add to them to make a book about leadership.
I’ve been writing this column now since November. It’s been a great opportunity to have more of a voice in York, and I’m grateful for the many conversations I’ve been able to have with you because of the column. Always feel free to email me if there is a topic you’d like me to write about in the future or if you just want to connect.