Is Integrity Obsolete?

Is our acceptable level of integrity declining?Integrity

Is it still realistic to expect integrity from notable citizens – politicians, advocates, or organizational leaders?

In daily news stories, sidewalk interviews, or hearings, shameless individuals float absurd stories to explain activities which, in previous years, would have launched investigations, firings, and even criminal charges. Now challenges to mass hard-drive erasures and email deletions are rebuffed with shoulder-shrugs and filibusters. If the culprits are politicians, many are rewarded with re-election.

Basically these individuals assume the populous is too foolish to discern that it is being duped, too busy to pursue an investigation, or, as I am inclined to believe, too frequently disappointed to expect their leaders to act apart from self-interest.

While our political expectations for integrity may be softening, we continue to expect ethical treatment during our personal interactions (ignoring ‘white-lies’ told to avoid bruising feelings). Most of us deeply remember and resent being lied to in important matters.

Is integrity destined to fade away?

No. We seem to be hard-wired with it and expect it from others. Something C.S. Lewis brilliantly illustrated.

Lewis observed that when we protest someone cutting into line or stealing one of our possessions, our words don’t reflect a personal viewpoint, e.g. “Hey, you shouldn’t do that because I’ve decided such behavior is unacceptable.” Rather, our words resemble, “Hey! You can’t do that – it’s not right, that’s wrong,” revealing an appeal to a objective, external standard of acceptable behavior—which we believe to be generally in effect.

Lewis reasoned that if someone ‘in the wrong’ were confronted with a personally-anchored protest, their response might well be “To heck with your standard, I reject it. In fact, my standard of behavior allows me to act in this manner.” In the vast majority of occasions ‘rule-violators’ appear to accept this ‘external’ standard of behavior and instead expend their energy justifying their actions as valid exceptions to it.

Lewis concludes that a universal perception of right and wrong exists, albeit with differences attributed to culture and conditions. Some may argue that any apparent integrity ‘erosion’ is the result of society moving past traditional, religious-based, behavioral concepts. I believe Lewis, however, while supportive of a religious foundation, was speaking at a more basic level – his chapter title for the comments above: “The Law of Human Nature”.

Still important in the workplace

“A man (or woman) might know too little, perform poorly, lack judgment and ability, and yet not do too much damage as a manager. But if [a] person lacks character and integrity – no matter how knowledgeable, how brilliant, how successful – [the individual] destroys. [He or she] destroys people … destroys spirit … destroys performance. This is particularly true of the people at the head of an enterprise …. No one should ever become a [manager] unless he or she is willing to have his or her character serve as a model for subordinates” – Peter Drucker
Leaders encourage others to give as much of their talent, intellect, and creativity as possible in pursuit of the organization’s goals. As Drucker said, true leaders must commit to being models—worthy of emulation.

Without trust in their leaders, employees shrink back, fearing negative repercussion or betrayal, never giving their all to the tasks at hand. Without faith in the integrity of their immediate leaders, Gallup found employees disengage or spread disenchantment to the furthest parts of the workforce. Both organization and employees lose.

Is character still worth our imperfect pursuit?

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a … football field, in an army, or in an office.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Every year, as leaders, we see our characters tempered through the challenges we face and the manner in which we face them. Our decisions—the stands we take, determine whether we grow by little or by much. This growth is like the annual rings visible in a tree’s cross-section. Our goal: characters others can rely upon and reputations hard won.

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” -Abraham Lincoln
Perhaps we should have a National Integrity Day—an annual reminder that integrity is worth chasing both personally and as a country, even though we all fall short. It might help us to not abandon the kind of behaviors which have made our organizations and countries the hope and desire of individuals across the globe.

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