Is integrity the most important attribute of leadership?
Integrity means doing the right thing even if no one is looking, writes Dr. William Cohen, but it can sometimes be difficult to keep when the pressure is on to get results. It can even mean losing your job if you’re forced to take a stand. But leaders with integrity, he writes, are the kind that people like to follow.Here’s why you should NEVER compromise your integrity.
Debbie, a former student I know was hired by a non-profit institution after several years working for an Internet marketing company. One day Debbie called and asked if she could stop by my office. She sounded troubled and I agreed to see her the following week. When she came to my office, we exchanged pleasantries, and then we got right down to business.
"It’s strange," Debbie said. "Everyone has this negative image of Internet marketing. But boy, my old company had very high ethical standards. If we said something, we meant it. If the person didn’t like the product for any reason, we refunded their money plus the postage, and no questions asked."
It can be difficult to take a stand but never lose your integrity
"What about your new company?" I asked.
"Not the same at all," she said. "My new company isn’t really a company. It’s a non-profit institution. That part is fine. However, we won’t return money once it is donated. I guess that’s okay since it is policy, but we do a lot of other things my former Internet marketing company would consider highly questionable."
"Such as?" I asked.
"Well," she continued, "in one of our campaigns we tell the person donating the money that they can pick among various places the money can go. But after the campaign is over, we divide up the money according to where we think it should go. We follow the donor’s choice only if they happen to fit our own choices. I asked about this and was told that’s just how things are done.
"We also do telephone solicitations. I was told that according to the law that the person doing the soliciting can’t pretend to be someone they are not, like a policeman getting money for the annual police ball, or something like that. But I watched a woman in the office asking for money for the sick and handicapped, and she kept coughing and acting in sort of a helpless way. I knew she didn’t have anything wrong with her, so I asked her about it after her call. She told me that she wasn’t pretending to be anybody, but that she was much more successful when she coughed and acted as if she were sick herself.
"I asked my new boss about these things. He told me not to worry about it. He said that it’s all for a good cause and it didn’t hurt anybody. He said that for that reason we don’t have to stick to the same rules as an Internet marketing company like I used to work for. "They’re just after profits," he said. "We do what we do to help people and that makes it different."
"I want to know what you think," Debbie said as she looked me right in the eye."
"Debbie," I said, "I spent almost eight years in researching and interviewing combat leaders who went on to highly successful careers in industry, including 62 generals and admirals. Why combat? That’s about the worse environment you can find. It’s high risk every day, and very uncertain. ‘Working conditions’ are horrible. Leaders are not only responsible for getting the job done, but also for the lives of those that work for them. It’s probably the only situation where both leaders and followers would rather be somewhere else. If you can lead effectively in combat, you can lead anywhere.
"But I didn’t stop there. I personally interviewed dozens of other highly successful corporate leaders. Almost every single individual I surveyed or interviewed spoke about integrity as being the most significant factor in successful leadership, in or out of the military.
"You may not realize it, but most of us are leaders without realizing it. Sure, business people are leaders, but so are teachers, politicians, coaches, salespeople, parents, and solicitors of funds for non-profits. When you convince someone to do something, like be a donor for a worthwhile cause, you are a leader.
"Now once a leader starts lying or failing to do what he or she knows to be right, even to make a worthwhile job easier, or to do a better job for a good cause, that leader loses personal credibility. . . not only to others, but to himself. If you can’t perform your job with integrity, my advice would be to get out as soon as you can."
"But is that practical?" asked Debbie. "I mean, I can see that theoretically what you say is true, but I have to eat and I have to think of myself and my family as well."
"Debbie, integrity means adherence to a set of values that incorporate honesty and freedom from deception. But it is more. It means doing the right thing regardless of circumstances or benefits to the leader or the organization. It means doing the right thing even if no one is looking.
"Have you ever heard of Mildred "Babe" Zaharias?," I asked. Debbie had not.
"Zaharias was a champion in the 1932 Olympics, and later a professional golfer. On one occasion she penalized herself two strokes when she accidentally played the wrong ball. ‘Why did you do it?’ asked a friend. ‘No one saw you. No one would have known the difference.’ ‘I would have known,’ replied ‘Babe’ Zaharias.
"Babe Zaharias was a champion of integrity. I read this story about "Babe" Zaharias in a book by Retired Major General Perry M. Smith. General Smith knows something about integrity, too. He was a highly paid consultant for CNN. CNN isn’t a non-profit organization, but it’s an institution that prides itself on maintaining high standards of integrity. In this case, it failed, but no one paid any attention. So, General Smith resigned his highly paid position. In doing so, he shined a spotlight on CNN and forced the famous network to retract an erroneous story regarding the American military’s using gas to kill its own men in Vietnam. He lost a lot of income, but he did the right thing. Maintaining absolute integrity is the bottom line rule any leader who wants his or her subordinates to follow under any or all circumstances. It is the only way to insure complete commitment to any project and any task."
"And he’s not the only leader to give up income in order to do the right thing. A few years ago, a man named Leonard Roberts became CEO of Arby’s, the fast food restaurant. It was losing money, but Roberts turned the company around. However, he resigned from the board of directors to which he had been appointed when Arby’s owner threatened to withhold bonuses for Robert’s staff, and not give promised help to Arby’s franchisees. In retaliation for his stand, Arby’s owner completed the separation and fired him from his job as CEO as well.
"Roberts went from the frying pan and into the fire. He was hired as CEO of Shoney’s headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. To his dismay, he found that Shoney’s was the subject of the largest racial discrimination suit in history. Unfortunately, this was no misunderstanding. It had apparently been the policy of Shoney’s owner not only not to hire African-Americans, but also to fire any restaurant manager who did. Roberts promised that the suit would be settled fairly. Shoney’s owner agreed to pay up and settle, but only if Roberts would resign afterwards.
"When I interviewed Robert, he told me, ‘My stand on integrity was getting a little hard on my wife and kids. However, I knew it had to be done. There was no other way.’
"Debbie, Roberts became CEO of Radio Shack, and a year after that, CEO of Tandy’s, which owns Radio Shack. Soon, Brandweek magazine named him Retailer of the Year.
"Many leaders of integrity are like that. Many succeed in the end probably because of their integrity, even though it’s hard on them or their families when they are forced to take a stand. Many also simply get fired. But most will tell you that it doesn’t make any difference whether they win or lose. They are simply going to do the right thing anyway. Those are the kind of leaders everyone wants to follow."
"So, my advice to you is to be a leader of integrity regardless of where you work or who you are working for."
Debbie left. She had a frown on her face, and I wasn’t sure what she would do.
Some weeks later, I got a call from Debbie. "Well guess what happened?" she asked.
"I can’t imagine," I replied.
"Last week my boss told me to lie on some results we got on a direct mail campaign. I refused, and he threatened to fire me. I still refused. Anyway, he got someone else to do it. I was waiting to get my notice to leave when the other person got caught. He spilled the whole thing to my boss’s boss. They fired my boss! It turns out, that this whole unethical thing was due to his influence, and it’s not what top management wanted at all. Now we’re having special meetings on ethics."
"What happened to the employee that actually lied?" I asked.
"Well, he got off with a warning, but the general feeling is that he won’t go any further in our organization. No one trusts him."
"How do you feel?" I asked.
"Great," answered Debbie. No one knows I was ordered and refused to lie, but I know it. It has changed my whole outlook on everything. I mean, now I know what I am made of and how far I’ll go to do what is right. And the answer is . . . all the way!"
Debbie learned that integrity is not about profit. It’s not even about whether you have the right to do something under the law or not. Integrity is about doing the right thing.