The Importance of Integrity in Leadership

Leadership involves so many difficult challenges and exceptional behaviors and mindsets. These days, we ask much of our leaders.
 
When I ask workers to quickly name the qualities that arise in their minds when they hear the word “leader,” I am instantly assaulted by a barrage of words: vision, charisma, confidence, clarity, responsibility, results, judgment, emotional intelligence, coach, and much more.
 
What is the most important aspect of leadership? Have you thought about that?
 
In my view, the most important aspect of leadership is integrity, because everything else leaders do flows from it (or its absence), followed by the courage to uphold it.
 
Warren Bennis, the late scholar and author widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership, once wrote, “Integrity is the most important characteristic of a leader, and one that he or she must be prepared to demonstrate again and again.”
 
Reflecting on his approach to hiring, Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, noted, “I look for three things in hiring people. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is high energy level. But if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” Yes, we have seen many leaders with smarts and ambition get into trouble when they lack integrity and make poor choices.
 
For our book, Triple Crown Leadership, we interviewed leaders in 61 organizations in 11 countries, and sought to find out how leaders build organizations that are excellent (exceptional results and positive impacts across stakeholders), ethical (doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard), and enduring (standing the test of time and operating sustainably).
 
When we interviewed Girish Vaidya, former Senior Vice President of the Infosys Leadership Institute, we asked him about the relationship between excellent results, operating with integrity, and sustaining these practices over time. He noted, “You might get high performance for a while even if there is no integrity, but for consistent high performance, integrity is absolutely important.” Notably, they view integrity not just as an aspiration or value but as something to bake into their culture and their organizational storytelling during onboarding and meetings.
 
During your career, your integrity will be tested. Have you committed to doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard? Do you have people around you with the courage to step up and ask the hard questions and push back when there are concerns? In her book, Fierce ConversationsSusan Scott wrote, “There is something deep within us that responds to those who level with us.”
 
Think of your own leadership at its best, whether at work or in community engagements, sports, or family. Think of the leaders you admire, and the ones who have influenced you in lasting ways and brought out your best. In all cases, you are likely to find people, though not perfect, who are deeply committed to honesty, fairness, and other fundamental moral principles. Integrity is essential in leadership.
 
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, former five-star Army general and U.S. president

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Importance of Trust in Leadership

There are many ways to think about leadership. For some, as we have seen, it is about control or power. For others, it is about achievement or recognition. For others, thankfully, it is about people and service, along with higher purpose and positive impact.
 
Since leadership by definition involves a relationship between leaders and followers—and, more precisely, an influence relationship—it begs the question of trust. One may be able to command, control, or deceive at some point or for some time, but for an enduring relationship of constrictive influence, trust must be present.
 
Trust is a firm belief in the reliability or truth of someone. This takes us into the deep and rich territory of character, credibility, ethics, honesty, integrity, morality, and values—all of which are essential underpinnings and necessary prerequisites of good leadership. These virtues are good in and of themselves and should be aspired to by all (and, yes, even in competitive contexts such as business and sports).
 
There is also a “business case” for trust. Without trust in an organization or society, things take longer and cost more, due to the need for checks and reviews and the inevitable holding back that comes in such situations. In his book, The Speed of Trustauthor Stephen M. R. Covey wrote, “Trust always affects outcomes—speed and cost. When trust goes up, speed will also go up, and costs will go down. When trust goes down, speed will also go down, and costs go up.” He and his father, Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), brilliantly described leadership as “getting results today in a way that, by inspiring trust, increases our ability to get results tomorrow.”
 
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the classic book, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the characteristics of admired leaders. More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful:
 
“Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted…. Trust is the most significant predictor of individuals’ satisfaction within their organizations.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
 
This is not rocket science. Imagine working for a leader or colleague whose behavior has demonstrated that he or she is not worthy of your trust, since he or she has deceived or used you. Imagine living with a family member or having a friend who abuses your trust.
 
Unacceptable. Such a situation requires change, and urgently so.
 
Of course, we all make mistakes and, when we do, thankfully we can redeem and make amends when others are kind and gracious enough to give us a second chance. But patterns of deceit warrant decisive action. Otherwise, we enable abuse and corrosive forces in our organizations and society.
 
Trust is essential in leadership—and in all forms of human relationships and organizations. Chronically failing the trust test is disqualifying for leaders.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Twitter: @gvanourek

The Importance of Credibility in Leadership

Credibility: the quality of being worthy of belief and trust

Credibility, which flows from character and competence, is one of the most essential aspects of leadership. High credibility is a tremendous asset for leaders seeking to achieve exceptional performance and positive impacts. Low credibility is devastating.

Credible leaders are straight with people, even about hard topics. They walk the talk and practice what they preach. They do what they say they will do and follow through on promises.

Think about what you have wanted from your leaders, parents, teachers, and coaches over the years. Think of the impact that credible leaders have had on your life. Think of the kind of leader you would want your children or best friend to work for.

Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations:

“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest….
“…people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted.”
-James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

Table 1. Characteristics of Admired Leaders
(% of respondents selecting each characteristic over time periods)

According to their research, when people perceive their manager to have high credibility, they are significantly more likely to:

  • Be proud to tell others they’re part of the organization
  • Feel a strong sense of team spirit
  • See their own personal values as consistent with those of the organization
  • Feel attached and committed to the organization
  • Have a sense of ownership of the organization

When they perceive their manager to have low credibility, they are significantly more likely to:

  • Produce only if carefully watched
  • Be motivated primarily by money
  • Say good things about the organization publicly but criticize it privately
  • Consider looking for another job if the organization experiences problems
  • Feel unsupported and unappreciated

That leads them to the Kouzes-Posner 1st Law of Leadership:
“If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.”

And then to the Kouzes-Posner 2nd Law of Leadership:
DWYSYWD: “Do what you say you will do.”

Today we all face grave challenges, from the pandemic and economic crisis, with all their stresses and pressures, to competitive and technological disruption. Now more than ever we need credible leaders worthy of our belief and trust.

“Credibility is a leader’s currency. With it, he or she is solvent; without it, he or she is bankrupt.”
-John C. Maxwell

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Twitter: @gvanourek

The Root Cause of Ethical Failings (and Our Political Dysfunction)

Scandals. Fraud. Abuse of power. Greed. Corruption. Tax evasion. Coverups.

Once rare occurrences, coming back to haunt us every decade or so, these are now front and center in our daily lives and our daily news cycle. We see them in government, in business, and even in nonprofits and some religious organizations.

It seems as if we are in a race to the bottom.

While these challenges and failings have always been with us, we are not particularly well equipped to deal with them, in part because we fail to understand their root causes—and to hack away at them.

Enter Professor Kenneth Goodpaster and what he calls the “three symptoms of ethical hazard”:*

1. Fixation: obsession with an overarching goal. For example, Enron executives were a group of hyper-ambitious overachievers with something to prove about being number one. Many were ruthless and uninhibited about doing whatever it took to get there. For NASA, it was fixation with set-in-stone space shuttle launch dates, contributing to tragic explosions and loss of life. Some mountain climbers get “summit fever,” where they are so focused on reaching the top that they recklessly risk their own lives and those of their teams.

2. Rationalization: attempting to explain or justify behavior with logical reasons, even when not appropriate. Sometimes values conflict (e.g., truth vs. loyalty). Rationalization entails choosing based on one “privileged feature” (e.g., total loyalty regardless of the truth). This creates “blind spots” in ethical thinking. Examples of rationalization are legion:

  • My boss told me to do it.
  • Everybody else is doing it.
  • It’s just this one time.
  • No one will find out.
  • It’s not my responsibility.
  • It’s not lying. (It’s just not telling the truth.)
  • We really need/deserve this.
  • I didn’t do anything. (I just looked the other way.)
  • You don’t understand the pressure we’re under.
  • “Business is business”: we’re just “maximizing shareholder value.”
  • “Politics is dirty”: we have to do this so we can do X, Y, Z….

“I… rationalized that what I was doing was OK, that it wasn’t going to hurt anybody.” / “I will live with this pain, with this torment, for the rest of my life.”Bernie Madoff, former financier and operator of a Ponzi scheme considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history

3. Detachment: the sense of not being personally involved in something or of having no interest or stake. On ethical matters, Goodpaster raises the alarm when our actions are detached from our personal values. When detached, people bypass their heart and soul as they privilege only their head, and they anesthetize their humanity in the face of temptations to win or be perceived as successful. Here he draws on psychoanalyst and author Michael Maccoby, who warned that “careerism” was a self-destructive affliction suffered by many successful executives (and politicians, presumably), fueled by an obsession with winning and a “gamesman” view of all actions in terms of whether they will help you succeed in your career or campaign. The person detaches from his or her sense of identity (e.g., as a mother or father, citizen, etc.) and integrity, and one’s sense of self-worth becomes measured by performance in the market, game, or arena. Such detachment corrodes character and degrades mental health, with people leading divided lives between work and home.

Two related dangers here are “ethical fading” and “moral disengagement”:

  • Ethical fading: “when the ethical aspects of a decision disappear from view,” such as when people focus so much on things like profitability or winning that they do not register unethical and illegal behavior (and the related aspects of harm, pain, conflict).
  • Moral disengagement: restructuring reality to make our actions seem less harmful than they are, convincing ourselves that ethical standards do not apply to us in a certain context, such as a political campaign. We mentally reframe destructive behavior as acceptable, and our brains are masterful at this misdirection.

Each one of these three symptoms is dangerous, but the real problem is that they converge into a single, terrible pattern. Goodpaster calls this “teleopathy”: the unbalanced pursuit of purpose. The word “teleopathy” combines two Greek roots: “teleo”: goal, target, or purpose; and “pathos”: disease or sickness.

We can think of it as a goal sickness—as being so focused on a goal that we pursue it destructively:

We must win.
We must be the best.
We must rule.

Thankfully, Goodpaster notes that there are “antidotes” for the three symptoms of ethical hazard:

1. From fixation to perspective. We must see that our goals are part of a larger mission, the common good. We need to transcend our perpetual busyness and reactivity and build in reflection time, renewal rituals, and sanctuary. Without a larger and longer term perspective of community, duty, stewardship, and sustainability, we will spiral down in self-destructive patterns.

2. From rationalization to frankness. Since our rationalizations tend to be subconscious, coming from the older and faster parts of our brain that do not engage our most advanced reasoning capacities in our prefrontal cortex, we need radical honesty and candor through searching and piercing dialogue and healthy conflict with colleagues who recognize the tremendous value of vetting and pressure-testing our ideas and decisions and inviting conversations about whether we are upholding our shared values. We need people who are willing to “speak truth to power,” even when they are a voice of one. Ideally, our organizational culture fosters such questioning and conflict, all in service of making wise decisions and proper actions.

3. From detachment to engagement. This requires engaging our heart as well as our head. A powerful way to do that is to be clear about the higher purpose of the work you are doing (beyond winning a campaign or maximizing profits:

  • What will you do once elected?
  • What value can you create for all stakeholders through the profits you generate?
  • What positive impact can you have via serving others, and are you doing your part for the common good?

Now more than ever we need to identify and hack away at the root causes of our ethical failings and political dysfunction. We need to stop our senseless race to the bottom—in business with our myopic pursuit of profit and growth regardless of the consequences on people and planet, and in politics with our zero-sum game mentality of “I must win and you must lose” with all its attendant cynicism and disdain for fellow citizens who happen to disagree with us on some issues. We need to look for shared values and mutual interests instead of stoking mistrust, anger, and resentment. This race to the bottom is so dangerous because it threatens to destroy the very foundations of our communities and society. With perspective, frankness, engagement, and a healthy pursuit of shared purpose, we can redirect the race upward.


* Source: Kenneth Goodpaster, “Ethics or Excellence? Conscience as a Check on the Unbalanced Pursuit of Organizational Goals,”Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2004.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.