Perhaps, it is inconceivable to mention leadership without a reference to integrity. The two are like Siamese twins; inseparable. Any attempt to assume leadership, devoid of the virtue of integrity will remain as a utopian concept. Impractical and unnatural. Integrity is a given trait in a leader. If it’s absent, then the leader is not one in his own right but is dependent on crutches from all the thinkable and unthinkable forces.
What is integrity? How is it defined? Does it have boundaries or limitations? Can it be numerically measured?
Integrity is in direct relation to the quality of being honest, that is rooted deeply in the foundations of moral values, social norms and cultural traditions, customs and mores. Integrity is a virtue, and like all virtuous traits, it is non quantifiable. Hence consequently it is presented all , but not visible to all; it is all about the interplay between morally principled stand and attitude in comparison to everyday practical response to diverse situations. Integrity based leadership is about doing the ‘right things’, even when there is no obvious supervision.
This aspect is best explained by the fact , that we choose to stop at the red traffic light signal although, even when there is no Constable in sight and we wait till the lights gets green to proceed , regardless of the time -- the behaviour is consistent, to stop at red light , whether it is 9am in the morning or it is midnight. Integrity is a habit and an attitude. The classical definition of integrity covers the quality of being honest, with strong grounding of morals and of behaving consistently, which contributes towards creating confidence in predictable behaviour.
What does integrity as a trait do to a leader? It enhances for certain, credibility and trust , in relation to coworkers, clients , etc. integrity gets amply reflected in the manner a leader conducts his day to day business -- first and foremost is having a crystal clear transparency; secondly, following the laid down systems and procedures, which in turn must be framed in alignment with international best practices, thirdly, meeting obligations and responsibilities, with a keen and a fine sense of commitment.
Amongst the many traits desired in any leader, integrity obviously would be ranked as the most desirable quality. Just as honesty and character cannot be measured; one is either honest or dishonest; one may be known for character or having none at all -- there is no middle road. There is no room for declaration that ‘mostly’ one has good character or 90 percent of the time one is honest. Nay, it is honest or dishonest ; honourable or not honourable. Similarly ‘integrity’ is something that has to be consistent , it is not alterable or amendable to suit the demands of time or market. Expedient integrity is essentially a reflection of lack of it and also of character too. ‘Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless , and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful’ (Samuel Johnson).
Leaders, who are known for their integrity serve as role models. They tend to inspire the environment to remain righteous in business transactions. It is only when the entire workforce sees the leader behaving and maintaining the highest standards of integrity, that the organisation then begins to acquire a culture of integrity.
To be able to establish a culture of integrity, the leader must walk the talk. It is critically crucial that deeds must match the words. Any disparity or dichotomy will expose leadership. If a leader makes commitments, then those must be fulfilled. (Only political leadership is exempt from this requirement -- they promise what they can’t deliver and they know it, when they say it).
Followership to any type of leadership is dependent on how integrity is viewed and practiced by the leader. What is examined microscopically is the consistency in handling disagreements or in responding to disparate issues. Integrity encompasses personal and corporate values, beliefs, public utterances and actions of the leader. Integrity is therefore one trait that influences all other traits of leadership. It is this wholesomeness of integrity that goes to influence the overall behavioural integrity of the leader.
Albert Einstein had rightfully remarked, “whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs”. Leaders have to demonstrate that no temptation of any sort, type or kind can beguile them from the path of integrity. The test of this quality is not judged by the handling of matters of significant concern but it is critically examined on how the small and everyday issues are tackled; brushing aside with compromise the insignificant aspects renders vulnerability to the concept of integrity. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy" (Martin Luther King Jr.). No leader can permit his reputation to be taken away, for it will lead to doing away with honour for life. Even in the most twisted lanes of life, one has to drive straight.
The possession of the quality of integrity makes the leader appear as genuine and trustworthy. Leaders play on the strength of colleagues and adversaries alike; their standard of integrity does not permit, to hit people when their chips are down. Even in situations of cut throat competition, leaders with integrity, operate with grace and distinction. They avoid exploiting weaknesses. They earn the trust of their followers by believing in them and their skills. Leaders, who are conscious about integrity aren’t scared of assessment and accountability. They side step disagreements and move to create harmony and cohesiveness amongst followers and within the organisation. Integrity is not about divide and rule. Integrity demands unison of thought and action brought about through openness and candid review of issues and challenges.
Integrity is the edifice upon which are built traits like honesty, fairness, trustworthiness and all other habits that fall within the realm of morality. Integrity overarches all other virtues that must attend the personality of the leader. “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to take tough decisions and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and integrity of his intent" (Douglas MacArthur) .
Integrity is a non-negotiable concept. It cannot be traded. It cannot be bargained. Leaders must remain unblemished, they must posses unimpeachable qualify of integrity -- our Quaid, Mr. Jinnah scores 100 percent in maintaining a very keen sense of integrity and propriety, both involving his personal as well as professional life. And regrettably , he was the last political leader who exemplified integrity in his character.
In our daily chores, official or otherwise, we bend rules, to achieve goals. That's integrity compromised. We have witnessed situations where honesty has been claimed by those who would issue Statutory Regulatory Orders, to evade taxes and custom duties, and after the purpose was achieved, these orders with limited shelf life, were revoked. Integrity cannot be a passing phenomenon or a pastime, it must be anchored deeply into the personna. Those leaders and managers who tend to believe and act in a manner that renders integrity to be a malleable trait are essentially corrupt intellectually, morally and possibly financially too. Corruption and integrity have to be foes, not friends and collaborators. Organisations that succumb for business promotion to a little bit of corruption, invariably, end up being caught and penalised. Making good profits by expensing integrity is a shallow approach by the unenlightened leader. Business must remain consigned to upholding the virtue of integrity in its transactions and ventures.
– The writer is a senior banker and a freelance columnist