Corporate Culture | Leadership

On Being a Leader of Integrity: 4 Ways to Build Personal and Organizational Integrity

Are you a person of integrity? Chances are you and everyone reading this article will answer in the affirmative.  This introduces a massive blind-spot we have in our lives and organizations: self-deception – as none of us can say we have full integrity.

So, first, how do we define integrity?

Webster’s New World Dictionary gives two definitions of “integrity”: the first is the quality or state of being complete or whole; the second is being of sound moral principle.

Most of us define it as the latter – that is, being of sound moral principle, viewing it as a virtue or character strength. For example, in a 2012 study of the Character Strength of Leaders by CCL it was found that integrity was the most important contributor to top-level executive performance followed closely by bravery.

I would like to suggest Webster’s first definition is more useful when applying it to staff member’s performance within an organisation because, while the latter definition – that is, moral principle, is a hazy term that is not always black and white; contrarily, the first, a state of being complete or whole, allows for specific identifiable features, which can be measured.

Let me further illustrate this using a bicycle wheel analogy. The wheel is whole and complete, however if you remove spokes, damage the rim or puncture the tyre, then it is not fully whole and complete. Integrity is diminished.

Therefore, for a person or organization to have integrity, our word must be whole and complete because everything in our lives is constructed in language.

Fernando Flores theorizes that organizations consist of networks of human transactions.  He describes how these ‘speech acts’, (requests, promises, offers, declarations and commitments to action) serve as building blocks for activating commitments in organizations and form the foundation of improving performance.

However, one of the biggest barriers to maintaining integrity is self-deception says Prof. Michael C. Jensen (Harvard Business School) in his UBC Keynote. People are mostly unaware that they have not kept their word. In fact, we deceive ourselves. Chris Argyris concludes: “Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently; unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and theory in-use, the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.”

The bottom line is when you don’t do what you say you will do, or when others have unclear expectations about what you will do, it will result in disappointment, lack of engagement and trust and compromised integrity. This will have a negative effect on organisational performance.

Here are four things you can do to build personal and organizational integrity.

  1. Start by keeping your word to yourself
  2. Lead by example and keep your word to others
  3. When you are not able to keep your word (or keep it on time), let everyone know immediately and clean up the mess this causes
  4. Commit to building and maintaining integrity as a lived organisational value

Integrity is a ladder you keep on climbing.

Being a person of integrity by honoring your word is the mark of an extraordinary leader.


Follow me on Twitter @GrantWattie

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    March 13, 2014 at 5:11 am

    Excellent article Mr. Wattie. I appreciate your bringing to the fore the self-deception that’s so pervasive in our culture. You may appreciate the following quote from a favorite, albeit little known, writer of mine:

    Plato made it the mark of an educated man that he should be able, and above all that he should always be willing, to “see things as they are.” The avoidance of self-deception is as much a matter of integrity as of convenience. Deliberate
    acceptance of appearances, the conscious exclusion of reality, is a distinct failure in integrity, a moral failure.

    –Albert Jay Nock, ‘Memoirs of a Superfluous Man’



    March 13, 2014 at 9:32 am

    This hits home for me. I struggled with a client CEO who often failed to keep his word on commitments–doing so only on his terms or to fulfill an immediate need on his list of priorities. The effects of his behavior on others included a strong sense of personal and professional violation and ill-will, not to mention cascading negative impacts on the organization as a whole. As one would expect, his blind spot was mirrored by his executive team: Goals were generally meaningless, values selectively applied, terms of engagement changed, bad habits persisted, personal accountability, excellence and consistency were seen as preached but not practiced by the top team. “Cleaning up the mess it causes” will take place with honest, mature self-reflection, humility and request for help. Thank you for bringing the complete definition of an incredibly important leadership quality to light, Grant.


      Grant Wattie

      March 25, 2014 at 4:36 pm

      Thanks Debra for this excellent example of compromised integrity. Unfortunately “cleaning up the mess” usually takes place with the next incumbent CEO, unless of course this particular CEO is open to good honest assessment from peers and advisors like you to open his eyes a little. Unfortunately these stories are all too common.

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