Integrity Is Easy, Until It Is Hard
Integrity is one of those things everyone believes they have, which is based on… what exactly? Most people believe integrity is about doing what’s right.
Right for who?
Right for when?
What if the conditions change?
What if it is right for some but not others?
I find integrity to be complex and individually applied. Everyone has their own definition of integrity. Personally, my integrity is based on honesty, personal responsibility, and the greater good. When I am faced with a tough, complex decision I am forced to consider options for resolution. I find it easy, when I am not faced with a hard choice. When the choice is more challenging I consider the complexity and focus on my authentic leadership style and maintaining integrity. However, it is the harder choices that test integrity.
Several years ago I was a part of a small department on the verge of elimination due to the high costs and limited revenues. It was clear that we had an exceptional product. Students completing our program were exceptional, most going to graduate school, many leaders at their institutions. I began visiting with colleagues at community colleges and we found ways to partner. A way to offer students a way to transition from one degree to the next smoothly, without moving and in their own community. The offers to partner were more than we could accept. That is when choices became hard.
Overall, many great partnerships. However, not all of the discussions resulted in a partnership. Why? Because in one situation, the leader at the other institution wanted to align with us to pressure another partner into an agreement that benefited her institution. We walked away from the situation because it lacked integrity.
In this situation we would not be entering into an honest partnership. It was to manipulate another institution. Personal responsibility to students, faculty, and the institutions would have resulted in little gain, and it “just wasn’t right”. In the end we served the greater good by not aligning and allowing the other institutions to negotiate on their own. This is one situation where, to maintain my integrity, we walked away.
In contrast, there have been a number of situations recently where professionals affiliated with college sports have supported the student-athletes (1, 2). For them, it appeared, their integrity was about student athlete support. Others, considered the bigger impact of the situation (greater good), versus individual reform (blind support). I read the articles with great interest, these were professionals that were leaders in their fields. I was stunned and dismayed by their choices, however, couldn’t help think these people have a different “self” definition of integrity. Clearly, different than my definition which makes me think everyone has their own litmus test for integrity.
In summary, I believe fully engaged and authentic leadership involves difficult decision making, honest relationships, risk-taking, and balancing public perception with long-term investments. Central to the habits of this leader is the practice of reflection, reflecting on personal values and integrity when making decisions in complex conditions. Integrity grounds my work, it is not easy, it requires work and reflection (3).