One of the most sold yet least bought commodities in the leadersphere is integrity. There’s hardly a set of corporate core values one comes across without it showing up somehow. What’s even more intriguing is how mystical people make it sound and look. In fact, I’ve heard politicians throw it about in a way that’s made me wonder whether even I understood what the heck it is. But hear me good: integrity is not that complicated.
Although there are so many definitions of it, I’ll share with you one that is as simple as primary school math and then show you a simple litmus test of integrity. Integrity comes from the Latin root integritas, which means whole, complete, entire, unbroken. It’s the same word from which we get the word integer. See, I told you it’s as simple as grade school math! What are integers? Positive and negative whole numbers.
Integrity then basically means you’re whole, not divided. The opposite of that would be fractions; not whole. You’re fractionated, broken up.
What’s the litmus test I speak of? Integrity is not that complicated. How can you tell I’ve got it? How do I know you have integrity too? I don’t need a KYC (know your client) form or a testimonial from a referee or even your long list of impressive achievements. Integrity is keeping your word–not letting your word fall to the ground, not breaking your word. Integrity is being what you say you are and doing what you say you’ll do.
BEING WHAT YOU SAY YOU ARE
Let’s consider two guys, Kofi and Yaw. If Kofi says, “I lie, I deceive, I steal.” Kofi has low morality, by that particular society’s general standards of acceptable behaviour in that era. When Yaw says, “I abhor lying, I don’t deceive, I never steal,” he has high morality.
BUT, if Yaw goes on lying, deceiving and stealing then Yaw is not a person of integrity. He doesn’t keep his word. However, if Kofi goes ahead to lie, deceive and steal, although he has low morality he actually is a person of integrity (albeit in a very twisted way) because he keeps his word. He said he will do these things and he does. Integrity is being what you say you are, being what you say you will.
DOING WHAT YOU SAY YOU’LL DO
Again integrity is keeping your word, this time, by doing what you say you’ll do. I still remember the shock of a new friend I made when I showed up at her place exactly when I promised I would. She was brutally honest with me that she wasn’t expecting me to keep my word. I was hurt that he would think so lowly of the human race, more specifically the XY chromosomic Homo sapiens, and even more specifically a Christian gentleman. But you couldn’t blame here–she had experienced too many people promising and failing to deliver all too often.
Integrity is keeping your word. Of course, sometimes we give our word and due to extenuating circumstances we’re not able to keep it (we can’t control everything, especially the elements and emergencies). If you are a person of integrity, however, although you are not able to keep your word you still honour your word by reaching out in advance (preferably in advance), apologizing for not being able to and renegotiating to make things right.
My editing team for the weekly PEP Talks I do expect my videos to get to them by Sunday night each week. I had such a long day last Sunday that I realized there was no way I was going to be able to make a good video to send at the end of the day. To keep my integrity, however, I sent a note to the team saying, “Hey, it’s been a very tiring day and I wouldn’t be able to give this video my best shot. I’ll work on it tomorrow instead and send it to you.” I was unable to keep my longstanding word, but I did well to still honour it. I wish that were always true. Sometimes I’ve failed to keep my word and gone on with life as if I never gave my word in the first place. That is not integrity–not matter how much I claim to have it!
I get amazed how many people give their word with no intention whatsoever to keep it! And then there is the category of people who give their word intending to keep it but when they are unable to don’t see the big deal in still honouring their word–apologizing and redressing it. I’ve had to correct several people I work with to the point that now they not only keep their word, but if for some reason they are not able to, they now honour it by apologizing, letting me know and re-negotiating.
By the way, when we make plans and don’t keep it (even if they don’t involve anybody else), we violate our integrity. Many of us do not take our own word seriously; we don’t take ourselves seriously. I insist on 100% integrity with my coaching clients when they give their word about what they commit to doing in between our sessions.
Inasmuch as I want to keep this article to the personal level, I cannot help but take a swipe at politicians who are notorious for giving their word during political campaigns only to take office and not only fail to keep their word but sometimes even pretend they have no clue what the citizenry and civil society organizations are reminding them about and trying to hold them to account for! There is a joke about how before elections they call us “the masses.” When they win and we make our demands of them we become “them asses!” In my short lifetime, on both sides of the Atlantic, I have met very few politicians worth their salt. Politicians with integrity are almost extinct.
So integrity isn’t this highfalutin, mystical, metaphysical thing. It’s not that complicated. It is as simple as primary school math: integers. What shows you have it or not is as simple as keeping your word. Period. Nothing more, nothing less.