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Integrity: What You See Is What You Get

This morning I found myself musing on my personal, core value of integrity and what it means to me.

In a nutshell, I would say that a person is behaving with integrity when they're living fully in alignment with all of their personal values, and when that is obvious to anyone observing that person as they go about their life. Integrity isn't just a nice-sounding word that we nonchalantly throw around and then forget. If I don't live it, then I'm not being authentic: there's something false about the version of myself that I'm showing to the world.

Integrity means doing what I say I'm going to do, when I say I'll do it.

Integrity means speaking my truth, always, regardless of whether that sets me apart from the majority or causes tension in relationships.

Integrity means refusing to compromise on any of my other personal values: courage, honesty, love, freedom and so on.

Integrity means, in short, authenticity: what you see is what you get.

Now, anyone who can maintain full authenticity all of the time is, in my mind, a candidate for sainthood, but personally I do the best I can. I'm a perfectly imperfect human being and when I screw up I use that mistake to learn how to do better next time.

I'm not sure what brought this to mind today, but I'll share a bit of my story that perhaps helps to illustrate what I'm talking about.

Many years ago I worked for an organisation that was really going places; everyone was enthusiastic about what we were doing, the business was growing at an amazing rate, we were making a lot of money and our customers loved us. That's because we cared about what we were doing. Going to work was a joy - it wasn't tedious drudgery that I had to do because I had a mortgage to pay, as so many jobs often seem to be. Sure enough there was a heirarchy but it was very flat, and the senior managers and directors never stood on their egos or acted like dictators - they mucked in with the rest of us, rolled up their sleeves and helped to get the job done. I - a lowly systems engineer, could (and did) ask the Managing Director to help with a project; it needed liaison at board level and he was happy to oblige, to check in with me while doing the work, and when it was done, to ask me if there was anything else he could do to help.

And then, things changed. A new board of directors and a new management team came in. They were led by a bully - a nasty, selfish, ruthless, egotistical brute of a man who surrounded himself with similar, sycophantic types who hung on his every word and emulated his behaviour, all the while waiting for opportunities to stab each other, or him, in the back in the interests of personal career advancement. The organisational culture changed overnight. Now it was all about the bottom line; profit above all else. Don't waste time going the extra mile to make sure a customer is happy. Follow the rules, stick to procedure, be at your desk from nine to five every day and whatever you do, never complain or dare to say anything that could be in any way interpreted as criticism of how the business was being run. If anyone failed to toe this line they wouldn't be sacked - no, the strategy was to make their working life so miserable that they would leave of their own accord, because that was cheaper and less likely to attract a claim for unfair dismissal.

I'd been working overseas for a couple of years and so although I knew this was going on back in head office, I was remote from it and not badly affected by it. I and my colleagues were running what was effectively an enclave of the original business and we maintained the culture there, but when my time there was up and I returned to base I was horrified by what I found. Everyone was miserable and clearly didn't want to come to work. Many of the best people had already left, and more were going every month. Management weren't sure what to do with me, so rather than doing the honest thing - which would have been to make me redundant - they put me in the "make him miserable so he'll quit" category. Making me redundant would have cost money, whereas driving me out wouldn't. Simple as that.

I was aware that this was the strategy, so I thought right, I'm not having that. There was no role for me, so I invented one. I found things that needed doing, and did them. I went the extra mile for my customers. I did more than was expected of me at work - that was easy, as there appeared to be no expectations. I helped colleagues who were struggling. But I also put my own escape plan into effect. I used my business contacts to find opportunities to move onward and upward and out of there. I refused to be driven out until I was ready to go. I used the organisation to further my own ends and when I had everything in place, I made the organisation redundant.

Was that an example of integrity? Perhaps it was. I refused to be pushed around and treated like a piece of office machinery, used and abused until it was worn out and thrown on the scrap heap. I refused to be defeated. I took a bad situation and turned it to my advantage. I refused to be a victim. In the end, I did very well for myself. I manufactured an opportunity, left the organisation and the country too, and moved to a new job in a new country, in an organisation whose culture was very strongly positive, supportive and encouraging - another successful, well-led business.

I suppose, looking back, integrity did come into my response to that situation because I remained true to myself throughout. Staying put until my plans were in place wasn't easy and of course there was a temptation to run away from what had become a fairly unpleasant situation, but I knew that running away wasn't likely to result in a good outcome for me. I knew it was better to build on the positive aspects of the situation to create new opportunities, so that is what I did. When the going got tough I told myself, this is only temporary and I'll be out of here soon.

I've always figured that in a situation like that I have three options:

  1. Put up and shut up.

  2. Do something to change either the situation or how I feel about it.

  3. Get out of there.

Option 1 is almost never (pardon the split infinitive!) going to be helpful because it will probably lead to me feeling like a victim and to increasing resentment, which is mentally and spiritually corrosive.

Option 2 is best if changing something is both within my control and likely to achieve a long-term improvement. In the story I just shared, the ideal solution would have been to do something to restore the organisational culture as that would have resulted in great benefits not just for me but for everyone else involved. Sadly, that was beyond my control. So I opted for changing how I felt about it - instead of sadness, regret and victimhood I chose to look forward to new opportunities.

Option 3 is the one to take if the situation is intolerable and there's nothing I can do to fix it. But even then, don't run away. Find a new opportunity and run towards it.

Integrity is the guiding principle that will allow me to make the correct choice.

That's how integrity comes into my personal life, but it also plays a very central part in leadership, too.

As I've observed elsewhere, leadership is based on trust because if your people don't trust you, they won't want to follow you. If, as a leader, I behave with integrity then my people know that I'm trustworthy. That doesn't mean my job is done! It means I must always, regardless of the situation, behave with integrity. Always. One hundred percent of the time. I said above that anyone who can do this is a candidate for sainthood, but as a leader you owe it to yourself and to your people to make every effort to behave with integrity all the time. That's going to require significant effort and you're going to have to be continuously mindful of how you're showing up. Maybe you can't do it 100% of the time but if you put your mind to it you can get pretty close, and when you do slip up you'll be immediately aware that you've done it and you can act to fix it before any major damage is done.

So here's my advice to you as a leader:

  1. Figure out your personal values. We all have them, and even if we're not consciously aware of them they guide the decisions we make, the actions we take, the words we speak and the interactions we have with other people. As a leader, you need to bring your personal values into your conscious awareness so that you can deliberately behave in full alignment with them, thereby living with the kind of integrity and authenticity that your people want, and need, to see.

  2. Cultivate a habit of mindfulness so that you are constantly aware of how you're feeling and how you're showing up. You may feel like throwing a tantrum if something goes wrong, but ask yourself, is that really who I am? If you're mindful, you'll catch the temptation to rant and rave before it causes you to actually express that behaviour, so that you can remain rational and true to yourself.

  3. Regularly reflect on how you're doing. Ask yourself whether you're behaving with integrity some, all, or most of the time. Consider ways in which you could do better. Keeping a Reflective Journal is an excellent way to do this.

  4. Seek feedback from your people. You need to know how they see you. Don't let yourself believe that just because you're making an effort to behave with integrity, you've nailed it. Reflect on what your people tell you and act on what you learn from it.

  5. Get a mentor and meet with them regularly. Openly and honestly talk with your mentor about your values, what they mean to you, and how you live in alignment with them. Discuss your successes and your failures. Let your mentor's wise counsel help you to build your confidence in yourself.

  6. Don't beat yourself up when you don't get it right. Learn from your slip-ups. The only true failure is the failure to learn from your mistakes.

I might add one last thing: relax. Don't stress. Be yourself. Don't try to copy someone else, no matter how impressive they may appear to be. There is only one way for you to live with integrity, and that's your way.

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