I picked up this maxim years ago, growing up on a small farm in rural Australia. It has served me well. Whenever we compromise what we know is the right thing to do for the sake of what is expedient in the moment, it always exacts a toll on an invisible ledger that often far outweighs the benefit derived from our transgression.
The virtue of integrity has come under fire in recent years. So much so one might be wonder if it’s at threat of extinction. Yet if the outpouring of sadness in the wake of the passing of men such as Elijah Cummings, George H.W. Bush, or John McCain has anything to teach us, it’s that people are more hungry than ever for leaders who put principle ahead of power, pride and profit. Not everyone agreed with the politics or decisions of Cummings, Bush or McCain but they were widely respected as honorable people who always sought to do what they believed was right, even when it cost them.
W. Edwards Deming — the guru of process integrity who revolutionised manufacturing processes in the Japanese automobile industry in the 1950s — taught that it’s no good doing all of the right things some of the time or some of the right things all of the time. Excellence in process integrity requires a steadfast commitment to doing all of the right things all of the time. Compromising process integrity in any part of the system compromises the entire system.
Deming’s outlook aligns with that of Theodore Roosevelt who once said that, “Character in the long run is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and nation alike”. The character he refers to is built on a foundation of integrity; of principled and ethical behavior.
Which brings us to where America as a nation currently finds itself. The lack of character and principled behavior has left gaping holes in the integrity of our political system. Holes that are causing a profound damage to trust in the moral authority of America on the world stage. Holes that will take many years to repair and which are exacting a steep toll on that ledger of the nation. How it will be repaid is yet to be known.
Of course, it’s easy to point the finger at President Trump. Many are. And for good reason. As an ‘anonymous’ insider wrote in an Op Ed in the New York Times, Donald Trump has shown himself “not moored to any discernible first principles.”
Yet to lay all blame at the feet of one person, or even just a few, is to abrogate responsibility for our own role within the system. After all, a democracy isn’t just about the rights of its citizens, it’s also about their responsibilities. As Lincoln once said, “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people.”
As such, the principle that ‘without integrity, nothing works’ is not just relevant at the level of federal politics. It is equally relevant to the organizations in which we work, the communities in which we belong, interpersonal relationships and within our own lives.
Few people set out to be corrupt and deceitful. Most end up that way by a thousand surrenders of self-respect for self-interest. Over time, each choice they’re confronted with becomes so muddied by all those that preceded it they lose all sense of right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical.
Just as character is forged in the stream of life, so too is it ceded in the pursuit of power and protection of pride. Without a firm commitment, our lives can become captive to the lower inclinations of human nature. None of us are immune to the temptation to surrender self-respect for self-interest and the higher we climb, the larger the stakes, and the stronger it’s pull. All the while, the line between black and white, right and wrong, pragmatic and principled, grows blurrier.
In the end, integrity is much easier kept than recovered. Which is precisely why each of us must examine the integrity of our own actions and, when we find ourselves making justifications to reconcile with our conscience, doing what is required to restore congruence with our highest values.
Of course, it’s easy to do the right thing when the right thing doesn’t cost or inconvenience us in any significant way. It’s not nearly as easy when it requires giving up something that we value. Anything that bolsters our sense of self-importance can put even the most ardent truth-teller to the test.
In my recent podcast interview with Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, she spoke about the need for a moral revolution. “We must look into our hearts and ask ourselves, am I showing up as the person the world needs me to be?,” said Williamson who, despite not being included in the most recent CNN debate, has declared her commitment to staying in the race. As she wrote in the Washington Post when announced her resolve to stay in the crowded Democratic field following the debate:
“We will not defeat outrageous lies with tepid, corporatized, compromised truths. Our task is to protect and defend our democracy from the greatest threat it has ever known, and we will need to begin by practicing it ourselves. If our political gatekeepers keep locking the gate, then the people ourselves will unlock it.”
If there’s one thing my work with organizations and leaders around the world has taught me it’s that integrity is the only path upon which we can never get lost – as individuals, as organizations and as a society.
Collectively, we have fallen off the path of integrity. Collectively, we have the power to get back on it. This will take confronting hard truths and doing the hard work of restoring the conscience of America and working diligently to regain the moral authority of United States of America on the world stage.
Yet this isn’t just the work of the few. It’s the work of the many. If you are reading this now, it’s your too. Living our values means not disengaging from the hard conversations or turning a blind eye when we witness others compromise them. Rather it requires holding others to the same high standards we seek to live by.
Martin Luther King Jr said that, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” This is not time to be silent. This is a time to step up, to speak up, to clean up our own act and to hold to account those who lack the integrity to clean up their own.
After all, knowing what is right and not doing it not only lacks courage but is, in the end, cowardice in its purest form.
Are you showing up as the person the world needs you to be – with integrity, character and courage?
C.S. Lewis wrote that, “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”
What are you doing? Because what you do, when people are looking and when people are not, defines the person you are and the legacy you create – for better or worse.
As Marianne Williamson shared in our podcast conversation, “Democracy isn’t just about our rights, it’s about our responsibilities.”
We cannot always choose the situation we find ourselves in, but we can always choose our response to it.
This is the ultimate form of responsibility.
Choose courage over comfort. Choose character over convenience. Choose self-respect over self-interest.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.