There have certainly been a few eye-catching newspaper headlines lately that have served to fuel our feelings of cynicism about leadership integrity, especially on the political scene. On both the local and national scene, we've been exposed to a perception of self-serving power and influence arising from deep-rooted friendships as well as back-room political manipulations used in an attempt to discard individuals who are perceived as a risk.
Yet, situations involving the loss of integrity are not only found in the political arena, they also occur in our business environments, perhaps more frequently than we would like to admit.
You may recall the famous collapse of the financial empire created by Bernard Madoff, who was found to be an investment fraud artist. As well, the collapse of U.S.-based Enron Corp., a leader in energy, natural gas, communications and pulp and paper with more than 20,000 employees, is not far from our memories. The leadership at Enron was found to have systematically engaged in accounting fraud and corruption, which was supported by the Arthur Anderson accounting and consulting firm. Both went bankrupt while key leaders headed to prison.
While most leaders don't engage in fraudulent behaviour, I've encountered many individuals who live on what I call the "grey edge." In other words, while they aren't engaging in anything illegal, their behaviour, in my view, can be considered unethical. And it only takes one more step to cross the line. A perception of unethical behaviour also creates a sense of mistrust and a loss of integrity. People simply lose respect for this type of leader.
Yet, what exactly is integrity? Integrity is defined as the consistency between what a leader says and what the leader does. It's an alignment between a person's values, beliefs, words and actions, as well as the extent to which promises are kept. Integrity is also perceived to be closely related to honesty, trustworthiness and fairness and is frequently thought to be a measure of good moral character. Finally, integrity is judged by how closely the leader's behaviour and actions are consistent with the moral frameworks of a community and/or organization.
However, one might question why it is so important for our leaders to demonstrate integrity. First of all, individuals don't like uncertainty, and since they are speculating on a leader's achievements in the future, they need some way with which to make a decision. Secondly, especially for newcomer leaders, there is little information on an individual's proven skills with which to make decisions. Thirdly, most people are apprehensive of the future and are afraid of being exploited or excluded at some point. Therefore, people frequently make their decision to follow someone by assessing personal integrity.
People want a leader who practises what he or she preaches, who follows through on promises and who "walks the talk." Once individuals are satisfied with their personal assessment, they'll make a decision as to whom they will trust, to whom they will be loyal and how hard they'll work for their selected leader.
Therefore, since people judge integrity by the consistency, credibility and reliability of a leader's behaviour, how do we know it when we see it? The following descriptors will assist you to confirm your perceptions of integrity.
Continuous Personal Growth: Leaders with high levels of integrity are in constant learning mode. They are ruthlessly honest with themselves, seek guidance to discover and work around their blind spots and are always learning and growing as leaders.
A promise is a promise: High-integrity leaders keep their promises, and if they can't meet the agreed-upon timeline, they will stay in communication with you until the promise has been kept.
Reliability: Just as we purchase proven brands, leaders who are shown to be reliable and can be counted on will attract more followers. Reliable leaders stick with problems and issues until they are resolved from a win/win point of view and a strong consideration for all stakeholders involved.
Accountability: High-integrity leaders don't just blame others and/or take the blame themselves, they own the situation and all of its outcomes. These leaders quickly intervene in an issue, evaluate unintended impact, take steps to rectify the situation and stay in close communication with stakeholders until the job is done.
Responsiveness: There is nothing more frustrating than waiting for a leader to respond to your query. High-integrity leaders are good time managers and will either respond immediately and/or will inform you when they can get back to your issue. If the situation is a crisis, they will be there for you.
Doing the right thing: High-integrity leaders have strong moral principles. You can count on them do the right thing, at the right time and for all the right reasons. These leaders have high personal standards and hold their team members and their corporation to the same high standards. They then assess each decision and action against their organizational standards.
Respectfulness: Respect is earned and is done so by showing respect and an acceptance toward others. Respecting others means understanding different values and beliefs, recognizing, accepting and developing the skills of others and including all employees as part of the team. Respect also means communicating and interacting with individuals by putting them on the same playing field.
Accessibility: High-integrity leaders are physically present and make themselves available and accessible to their staff. They interact with and invite employees to share their issues; they are always available to stop and listen.
Transparency: High-integrity leaders ensure their actions are "seen" as trustworthy and create a sense of certainty rather than uncertainty. They exhibit openness with respect to information, finances and various operational transactions and business dealings. When examined by others, their actions lead to trusting relationships.
Whether a single lapse of integrity and/or as a continuous way of doing business, unethical, non-integrity leadership behaviour not only has the power to ruin a career, but it has the power to totally destroy an organization. When integrity is destroyed, confidence goes by the wayside and may never ever return. Unfortunately, there are often more people hurt than can be imagined; just ask the 20,000 Enron staff who suddenly lost their job through no fault of their own.
-- Source: Why does Leader Integrity Matter to Followers? An Uncertainty Management Explanation, Robert H. Moorman, Creighton University, (US) and Steven Grover, University of Otago, New Zealand, International Journal of Leadership Studies, vol. 5 Issue 2, 2009.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed. is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org