By: John Griffith, Vice President, Consulting Services
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity.”
-Dwight D. Eisenhower
I was jolted from sleep as the notes of Reveille thundered across the courtyard. In a blur of fatigue and adrenaline, I leapt from bed into a fitness uniform and ran out the door. At 4:45am, the sun wouldn’t rise for another hour, but the warmth still clung to the night air in Biloxi, Mississippi. “One. Two. Three…” I bellowed to the group of 150 or so airmen as we did push-ups in unison. It was a struggle to pretend like I was fit enough to yell loudly while doing the exercises myself. But leading by example is a big deal in the military, and especially important to an insecure 18-year-old in his first leadership post.
The Air Force instilled in us its core values of Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. In the moments that followed I saw the importance of Integrity First in action. After an hour of intense fitness training, the sun began to rise as we gathered around the water coolers. I overheard two airmen bitterly gossiping about another leader in my position who had broken a policy. “I can’t believe they let him lead. What a phony!” What struck me was how enraged they were about a leader who lacked integrity. It was one of those moments I never forgot. I learned that day that integrity must come first, before leadership. And it’s a theme I’ve continued to observe over the years of developing business leaders.
If you ask someone whether integrity is important in leadership, you will hear a resounding “yes!” But if you ask what integrity is, what it looks like, how it is exhibited, then you may get a blank stare or a wide variety of answers. So we share here how we define Integrity at MCG Partners:
The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; reliably following through on commitments.
The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles
This is critical from a simple evolutionary question rooted deep within the human brain: “Is it safe to trust this person?” There was a time in history when the answer to this question was the difference between life and death. In the context of today’s business leaders, the questions are ‘Will this person do what’s right for me or him/herself? Be a good steward of resources? Treat everyone fairly? etc.’ If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then people can relax, give their best efforts, take risks, innovate, unlock their creativity and maximize their contributions to the firm. If the answer is ‘no’, then that leader makes it virtually impossible for a firm to become very successful. This is because people must continually stop to question whether it’s safe to act. Their brains are busy reacting, questioning, managing fear and anxiety. And the impact is that it’s impossible for them to access and operate from the higher thinking parts of the brain very often. A leader who exhibits honesty and strong moral principles creates an environment of trust in which people can give their best efforts.
Reliably following through on commitments
The ability to reliably follow through on commitments is the key to leadership effectiveness. In fact, there is a growing body of research indicating that it is the number one predictor of a leader’s business results. For example, in The CEO Next Door which was based on a data set of 17,000 CEO’s, the authors discovered that “CEO candidates who scored high on reliability were twice as likely to be picked for the role and 15 times more likely to succeed in it. Boards and investors love a steady hand, and employees trust predictable leaders.”
Let’s look at why this is. Each time a leader follows through on a commitment, they gain trust. As they follow through on larger and larger commitments, they are given more and more responsibility and it creates a virtuous cycle. An environment of accountability exists for all those surrounding the leader and ultimately this leads to engaged employees and happy customers.
In the reverse, each time a leader breaks a commitment, it erodes trust. Because people already have a bias toward not trusting leaders, it causes a rapid deterioration. Employees who feel that they can’t count on their leader feel resentment, a lack of accountability for themselves and a disloyalty toward the organization.
As commonplace as it may seem, a leader’s integrity is often the difference between a thriving company and a toxic culture. You might even call it the most important quality of leadership.
Who is a leader of integrity that you admire?
What stories can you share about leaders who lacked integrity?
About MCG Partners
MCG Partners a woman-owned, Greater Boston-based consultancy specializing in executive coaching, leadership development, talent management, and organizational development solutions. We help businesses optimize success through the entire management life-cycle. MCG Partners is also a Predictive Index® (PI®) certified partner.