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This Is What Leaders With Integrity Do Every Day

Exercise your do-the-right-thing muscles


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Shane Kinkennon

2 years ago | 4 min read

In my observation through decades as a student of business and organizational leadership, integrity is the characteristic that makes good leaders great. When people trust their leaders to make decisions from a strong moral and ethical center, they engage, energize and produce. That’s what integrity does. It creates a gravitational pull all its own.

Psychologist Seth Myers, Psy.D, explains that integrity is doing the right thing by without the promise of acknowledgement. Acting with integrity requires neither convenience nor praise. In business leadership, integrity expresses itself in day-in, day-out choices that reveal a consistent orientation toward uprightness. There is a prevailing decency.

To be clear, leading a business with integrity does not preclude one from being tenacious. Savvy leaders who practice integrity maneuver the countless daily trade-offs they face in a manner that creates value for all affected parties.

Instead of focusing on themselves and/or what is expedient, their orientation is to do well for the business while doing well for all involved and affected. In his Harvard Business Review article “A New Model for Ethical Leadership,” Max H. Bazerman explains that it’s about “maximizing aggregate wellbeing and minimizing aggregate pain, goals that are helped by pursuing efficiency in decision-making, reaching moral decisions without regard for self-interest, and avoiding tribal behavior.”

Leading with integrity is something to which most business and organizational managers aspire. Yet amid day-to-day stress and pressures, practical application can be more challenging. And “practical” is the right word, because leaders with integrity truly practice the below six habits.

1.They leave no space between word and action.

In every aspect of their lives, their behavior choices map to whatever values they espouse. In the rare event they are forced to do something that’s even slightly incongruous with a principle to which they claim to adhere, or even an off-the-cuff comment they once let slip, they own the discrepancy forthrightly. When they commit, they follow through.

They don’t hedge, qualify, forget, nor make excuses. They provide not even a smidgen of evidence to suggest that they fail to walk the talk.

2.They cultivate and utilize their moral and ethical center.

They feed, nurture and exercise their sense of right and wrong and create the conditions for other leaders in their company to do the same. Goals are set, strategy is formulated, and decisions are implemented in a manner that reflects thorough consideration of Bazerman’s “aggregate good” and “aggregate pain.”

Every choice takes into account implications for employees and their families, customers, and the communities and world around them.

Pro tip: Ask yourself what good that your company could do while achieving success, or even how your company might be successful by doing good. My friend and colleague Chuck Wolfe who is the CEO of a large hospitality company recently expanded full employment benefits to the hundreds of servers and cooks who work for the company.

With one bold move, he showed the staff and their families that they are valued, he challenged service-sector norms, and he invested in cost-saving talent retention. Rather than defaulting to what is standard or typical, ask what you might do that is both prudent and right. Chuck calls it the “golden rule” — if I were an employee, what would I want?.” Then pursue it unwaveringly.

3.They are fair.

Leaders with integrity apply their expectations of performance, policies, procedures, and rules consistently across affected people and teams. They keenly recognize situations in which they might be subconsciously inclined to play favorites and proceed with extraordinary caution.

When they are tasked with making a decision that might directly affect their colleagues’ or staff’s responsibilities, time, or relationships, they lean into fairness first and foremost. They are good to their people, yet no one gets special treatment. That goodness is distributed equitably.

Photo by fizkes purchased on Shutterstock

4.The avoid (the appearance of) conflicts of interest.

They steer far from situations or scenarios that could trigger concerns of unmanaged conflict of interest. If they are faced with a decision that could benefit themselves, their family, friends or allies, they disclose it or recuse themselves.

To be sure, they seek the counsel of trusted advisors who are free to be candid without consequence. They don’t put themselves in situations in which they can be accused of clouded judgment on matters that strike close to home.

5.They are humble.

They don’t give in to the temptation to seek VIP treatment. Despite their weighty responsibilities, they don’t expect their opinions to be hallowed, and they don’t seek to be revered.

They treat everyone in their company with equal courtesy, from lowest level to most senior. They command rather than demand respect. They don’t get power-drunk. They view their leadership as a matter of service and privilege, not birthright.

6.They are accountable.

They are expansive in their sense of accountability. They fully own the fact that things roll downhill only. When a decision they make doesn’t produce the desired result, they are the first to say so, express what they learned, and articulate what they’ll do differently next time. When things go well, they shine a light on other peoples’ contributions. When things go poorly, they shine the light on their own.

In my years as a chief strategy officer and then COO, I found a way to reliably ask myself questions like, “How might I respond with maximum possible integrity to this little moment?” I didn’t succeed every time, but I’m confident I succeeded most of the time. It stayed top of mind only because I committed to keep it there and then worked at it. It takes practice. Relying on instinct is not enough.

It’s worth the effort and then some. For me, the result is that I influenced people in positive and productive ways. And I slept soundly at night, confident that I was exercising my do-the-right-thing muscles even when no one was looking.

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Shane Kinkennon

Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.


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