Integrity Isn’t Flexible

I wrote about this a couple of years ago, but it seems like things are getting worse, not better. I’ve had a number of conversations with transitioning military veterans recently, and a common issue among them is adjusting to the perceived lack of integrity out in the “civilian world.” I’m not going to get all preachy and start throwing stones, but I can honestly state that I’ve run across more liars and cheaters outside the military than in.

Or maybe I’m just more sensitive to it because integrity-bashing is so pervasive in our media today. It seems like in business – and politics – we tend to throw the word ‘integrity’ around without giving much thought to what it means. Probably because it’s obvious to us if someone has it or not.

If you’re thinking, “Gosh, the blinding flash of the obvious is hurting my eyes,” take just a minute to write down the definition of integrity.

Not that easy, huh.

You see, integrity has as many definitions as leadership, and that’s as many as the number of people you ask. Integrity, like leadership, is in the eye of the beholder. To quote the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” (He was, of course, referring to hard-core pornography, but whatever).

Among the many definitions of integrity found via the Oracle (aka the internet), honesty and strong moral and ethical principles are most often used. The problem is that morals – the principles of right and wrong – are individual and depend on a person’s belief system. And ethics – principles of good and bad conduct – depend of the group or culture they attempt to govern (i.e., bribery is not unethical in some parts of the world).

My point is that, as a leader, your integrity is judged by others, and they use their own definition. And what’s most important to one person isn’t necessarily that important to someone else. Honesty and truthfulness are obviously part of integrity, but so is following through on commitments and doing what you say. And uncompromised principles and consistency of actions and values. Having integrity is a character trait, and while you might think you have it, if it’s not demonstrated so people can see it – through your words, actions, decisions, methods and outcomes – you will be judged by others as not having it.


We know that trust is a product of integrity, compassion and competence; if any of the three are missing in our leadership, we won’t be trusted. We can be forgiven for occasionally being less compassionate than usual, and our infrequent screw-ups don’t necessarily make us incompetent. Integrity, however, is black and white, all or nothing, so having flexible integrity – like situational ethics – makes a person untrustworthy, and that’s a death knell for leaders.

2019. New year, new you. Integrity is demonstrable. If you think you have it, you need to be intentional about displaying it. Be intentional about what you say, how you behave, and how you make decisions. Make sure they reflect your values and beliefs.
And most importantly, recognize the impact of how you display your integrity has on others. They’ll know it when they see it.

It’s up to you, leaders.