Integrity is a Choice Not an Obligation

The negativity of the television commercials for the US midterm elections is depressing. All they seem to be doing is attacking each other’s credibility. If I were an American I’m not sure I’d even want to vote. But, it has reminded me about an amazing woman, named Dr. Betty Siegel, who I met about five years ago while attending a Niagara College management retreat. 

Siegel taught and served in a variety of leadership positions at the university level, including serving as president of Kennesaw State in Atlanta from 1981 until July 2006. Although supposedly retired, she still serves as President Emeritus and Chair of their Siegel Institute for Leadership, Ethics, and Character.

While I understood and applauded the idea of a leadership institute at a university, I was a little perplexed as to why ethics and character had been singled out and emphasized. 

Turns out, Dr. Siegel was on to something. 

As we have all seen in recent years, it has become commonplace to see how a lack of ethics and integrity among our leaders has had a negative impact on political, social, and economic events. In addition to politicians taking vicious swipes at one another, the number of students who plagiarize and cheat is on the rise, support for the public good is less prevalent, and we too often continue to ignore concerns about non-renewable resources and the pollution of our environment. In short, we’re all witnessing the problems that arise when anyone, at any level, acts without integrity. As Siegel anticipated with her Institute, we need to understand and emphasize the importance of ethics and integrity.

Ethics are typically about an external system of rules and laws, For instance, many organizations and professions have developed a code of ethics and monitor its compliance.

On the other hand, integrity is more about an internal system of principles that guides our behaviour. In that sense, integrity is more likely to be a choice rather than an obligation. It means we do the right thing – even when no one is looking. These virtues, such as kindness, respect, honesty, wisdom, compassion, trust and objectivity, contributes to our integrity.

So what can we do to ensure our businesses, organizations, and communities reflect a culture of integrity?  Here are five things we can all do.

1. Be a truth teller.  Establishing and maintaining one’s integrity not only means being honest, it is also about refusing to be an ostrich, and to instead work at discovering and facing the real truth and reality of a situation. 

2. Be brave. It takes courage to stand up and speak out about what you believe. Of course, that also means you need to know your own core values. Sometimes, I think leadership is mostly about that kind of courage – the courage to challenge the status quo and plant your flag for what you believe.

3. Walk your talk. While it’s easy to talk about integrity, your actions will speak louder than any words. Know that the right thing to do is rarely the easy thing to do and you have to act with integrity even when it’s inconvenient or just plain hard.

4. Ask yourself, and others, the tough questions:  Do I believe this is the right course of action? Would I want others to act the same way? How will I feel about myself afterwards?

5.When you aren’t sure about the right thing – after all, many decisions aren’t black and white - err on the side of fairness.

If by chance you should overlook this list of five things and head in the wrong direction, lead with integrity by apologizing and knowing that sometimes U-turns are the only way to go. 

Posted on 10-31-10

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