The Importance of Integrity

Billionaire Warren Buffet says he looks for three things in hiring people. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is a high energy level. “But”, he went on to say, “if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.

Eliot Spitzer, governor of New York, proved him right last week when he was forced to resign as the result of his involvement in a sex ring.

By all accounts, Spitzer had a lot going for him in terms of intelligence and energy. Ultimately though, it was his lack of personal integrity that brought him down.

There are some who believe the price was too steep, suggesting that many other men have been outed for using call girls without being publicly humiliated and losing their job. One critic even commented that because it was senior government bureaucrats who blew the whistle on Spitzer, the democratic election process was overridden thus setting a potentially dangerous precedent.

While there may be some truth to that thinking, the reality is that Spitzer was elected to a high profile position that required a lot of trust. He was busted for doing something that was not only illegal but also by most standards immoral – not to mention down right sleazy. As a result it simply isn’t about his ability to do the job and obtain results. 

As a community leader, the issue is more about his demonstrated lack of integrity and, from this point on, intent and motives that will always be questioned.

When we think about integrity we often use the term interchangeably with honesty. While it definitely is about honesty, isn’t it also about walking your talk? Isn’t it about having the courage to behave in a way that reflects your personal values and beliefs?

Spitzer did have a reputation as an avenger in terms of chasing Wall Street corruption and he did demonstrate an ability to get the job done. On the other hand, the foundation of integrity upon which his reputation was built was a shaky one.

It is this lack of integrity that should be the focus of the media coverage and discussion.

In a world that continues to overload us with a numbing amount of data and limitless choices, it will become even more important. Young people especially will be at risk for remaining in a state of perpetual confusion about what is the right thing to do if we don’t talk about values. After all, there is no rulebook or company manual to help one sort it out. 

For me, values and principles are the filters that help us make important decisions. It’s much easier to make decisions when you know your values.  Even this week, as I begin work with new team members, I suggested integrating introductory activities that would lead to a discussion about our respective personal and our business values. Not everyone agrees it’s a good place to start, suggesting those are rather personal questions.

There’s no doubt they are personal. But leadership is personal and I’ve learned the hard way that working with individuals or even within an organization with values that don’t align can be extraordinarily painful for everyone. It seems far simpler to be up front about one’s own values as well as to know what other people value.

So what exactly are they?

Generally a value is a belief you are proud of and willing to affirm. It’s also something that is more than talk because it’s also about regularly taking action on that belief.

Ultimately it’s what you stand for. Those who read what I write will know that professionally I value community leadership, community development, lifelong learning, and empowering others. 

I also need to align my personal values by working with people and for organizations that demonstrate respect for people, responsiveness, honesty and transparency, shared leadership, teamwork, personal accountability, and hard work.

How does one find one’s own values?

It won’t be something you can google or find in a book. Instead it involves deep thinking about who you are and what you stand for.  Chances are you’ll find your values in your own mind, your heart, and in your soul.




Posted on 03-16-08

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