Showing Up with Integrity

Do you show up with integrity every day? And if you do, what does integrity actually look like?

C.S. Lewis famously said “integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” When leaders make this choice – whether consciously or unconsciously – to do the right thing, simply for the sake of doing the right thing, they are moving into the territory of ethics. 

Perhaps ethics is not the most exciting topic when it comes to leadership. Perhaps transformational leadership, or empowering people, or leading culture change, are the kinds of subjects that will inspire you to think about the way you’re leading. But ethics is of crucial importance and must not be overlooked.

If you’re open to looking at the ethics of your leadership, and to thinking more deeply about the way you lead, this article comes with a warning:  it can be uncomfortable to think deeply about your ethics.

In fact, it can be very uncomfortable to explore ethical leadership as it involves looking at your own attitudes and behaviours with honesty. Some leaders don’t much like what they discover when they go into this self-exploration process, and look at themselves deeply.

It’s important to remember that leading ethically should never involve judging yourself, or giving yourself a hard time. Instead, it’s an opportunity to grow – with a good dose of kindness and self-compassion – not only for the sake of doing the right thing, but so you can be the ethical leader the people you lead really need you to be.

The key take-home point is that ethics is perhaps the MOST important leadership subject that every leader needs to grapple with, because without ethics there is no trust, and without trust there is no leadership.

Are you willing to stand alone and take an ethical stance, even when others in your organisation prefer to fudge things, or avoid the inconvenient truth? Why would you bother? Because integrity really matters.

Defining integrity in leadership

I see integrity as an ethical virtue, so showing up with integrity means you will need to be clear about your values and to be living by those values. This implies a consistency between the ethical standards you espouse, and the way you actually behave.  

Researchers have endorsed this way of seeing integrity in leadership, with Palanski & Yammarino (2007) suggesting integrity is best described as consistency of words and actions.  Consistency of words and actions includes and subsumes various other definitions of integrity that are going around. For example, integrity has been defined as wholeness, as being true to yourself, and being consistent in the face of adversity or challenge. It is often defined as morality/ethics, in other words, acting in accordance with socially acceptable behaviour, such as honesty, trustworthiness, justice and compassion.

Whatever definition you adopt, putting the virtue of integrity into practice involves embodying traits or qualities that are deemed to be morally good. If you prefer to avoid the language of morality and the religious connotations this word carries, you can simply talk about doing what is right, and avoiding doing what is wrong. 

But what measure do you use to decide what is right? The world’s religions all have frameworks for determining standards of moral behaviour, and in the west we also have a long tradition of moral philosophy, which offers various ways to identify moral virtues.

This article is not an attempt to define what your values or ethical code should be. I only want to make the point that all leaders need to have an ethical code, and it needs to reflect and inform the way you behave as a leader, while also aligning with the values and culture of your organisation.

Your ethical compass is the essential starting point to build trust with the people you lead, and the people you serve. Trust – or rather lack of trust – is a significant issue in leadership. Without trust, engagement and productivity will be seriously compromised; there will be no collaboration, and staff retention is very likely to suffer as a result. If you can’t be trusted as a leader, then the foundation of your leadership will be very shaky indeed.

Why honesty matters so much

Integrity really does begin at the top. Leaders should be modelling ethics by acting ethically. There are many areas where you can sharpen your ethical sensitivity as a leader, but I always think it’s useful to start with just one action. Always, always, always tell the truth.

In Victoria, we’re just been through an election. As I listened to the politicians presenting their policies, I was struck by just how often our political leaders don’t tell the truth. Perhaps they’re not telling outright lies (although sometimes they are). More often, their values and biases colour their version of the truth. They might genuinely believe they are telling the truth, but it’s actually a slightly bent version of the truth, with facts being presented in a way that supports their purpose and their goals.

Truthfulness can be harder to put in to practice than you think. It can be so easy to fudge the truth to avoid embarrassment, to be expedient, or to support your biased perspective. You can also be untruthful by what you omit.

You might wonder, what harm can it really do to tell white lie? We see this all the time on TV. To cover a small lie, more and more lies are needed, until a web or dishonesty has been created. You, as the viewing audience, are shouting at the TV – “why don’t you just tell the truth?”

Maybe a small white lie is ok when it’s intended to spare some-one’s feelings on a matter that is not really important – like sparing my feelings about the pimple on my nose, on my bad hair day. But when it comes to important matters, matters of how you conduct yourself and run your business or your organisation, honesty is all that we have to keep us from the going down the slippery slope to unethical behaviour.

Most people probably think they tell the truth all the time, but it’s useful to look more deeply at your own and other people’s honesty in the workplace. Start by being honest with yourself. And always be truthful with the people you lead. Honesty means never fudging the details, it means giving a straight answer to a question, never omitting relevant facts, and admitting when you actually don’t know what’s going on. People will respect you for your truthfulness, even if the truth is not what they want to hear. When you are a leader with this type of integrity, you will be a leader people want to follow.

Bring integrity to every decision you make

When you’re a leader, regardless of your level within the organisation, you have to make a huge number of decisions every day. Think about this. You make decisions that impact on you, other people, your clients, and your organisation.

This applies to small decisions, like what feedback you’re going to give to a member of your team. It also applies to big decisions involving strategy, hiring and firing, and financial resourcing. Sometimes people’s livelihood, or the future viability of your organisation, could depend on the decisions you make.

Imagine if you lacked integrity – even just a little bit – or if you were outright dishonest when it comes to your decision-making. Making decisions is already a maze. Add ethics into the mix and you’re going to need to be pretty skilled at ethical decision-making in order to chart an ethical course.  Fortunately, this is a skill you can learn.

Own up to your failings

There are degrees of awareness at play when ethics is called into question. It can be convenient for a leader to remain unaware of the ways in which their behaviour is unethical. Often, ethics is not a clear dividing line between black and white, but a grey zone, where things start to get a bit murky. At this point you can either dig in, which will eventually take you down the slippery slope, or choose the path of awareness and integrity.

One of the hardest parts of integrity practice can be admitting that you screwed something up. Most leaders understand that rather than being bothered by the inevitable mistakes their people will make, it’s more helpful to see mistakes as learning opportunities. But why isn’t it ok for a leader to be learning from their mistakes too? Even if you’re the CEO!

Leaders are often afraid to own up to their own failings. Perhaps it’s out of concern that people will judge them for failing. In my experience, the opposite is true. People were often surprised when I said “yes, I screwed that up”, but they respected me more when I acknowledged my imperfections as a human being, and as leader. This type of honesty has the added bonus that when people see you modelling this behaviour, they feel safer to own up to their mistakes too.

Ethics is a practice

Here’s my list of five practices to help leaders show up with integrity. 

  1. Get clear on what your personal code of ethics is and make sure this aligns with the way you behave, and with the values and culture of your organisation.
  2. Always, always, always tell the truth.
  3. Reflect deeply on the ethics of your decisions and the way they impact on other people and on your organisation.
  4. Own up to your mistakes, and your failings as a human being and as leader.
  5. Make it safe to talk about ethical issues by talking about ethics often.

This is a useful framework to make ethics a practice you can embed in the way you lead, while also modelling ethics for others to follow.

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Courageous Leadership Program helps participants make deep and lasting to the way they lead, including ethical leadership.  To find out more, contact Maria.

Palanski, M. E., & Yammarino, F. J. (2007). Integrity and leadership: Clearing the conceptual confusion. European Management Journal, 25, 171−184

© Maria Brett, 2022

Do you show up with integrity every day? And if you do, what does integrity actually look like? C.S. Lewis famously said “integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” When leaders make this choice – whether consciously or unconsciously – to do the right thing, simply for the sake of doing the right thing, they are moving into the territory of ethics.