Almost every leader I know will tell you that he or she places integrity at the top of personal values. Given the widespread leadership failure that led to the Great Recession — I wonder how many of those leaders had integrity as a core value? — this is an important question to ask yourself: “How can I be assured that your integrity isn’t compromised?”

This is important because, contrary to what you might think, loss of integrity is a silent leadership killer. Vigilance is key to staying “in integrity.” Erosion of this value might happen slowly over time without much notice of integrity violations by those who participate in questionable practices. Issues that Greg Smith highlighted at Goldman Sachs in his resignation letter, published in The New York Times, are an example.

Groupthink is powerful: a little unethical conduct here, a white lie there — justification is available for every integrity-compromised action. Suddenly, someone realizes something is wrong, and it’s too late; the momentum has built like a leaky faucet until a drip becomes a stream that turns into a flood, drowning employees, customers and those who trusted your leadership.

How do you make sure you don’t get caught up in unethical or immoral conduct?

  • Know your values and refer to them often. Write them down and make them a visible reminder in your office. They are your foundation for staying in integrity.
  • Trust your gut when it’s telling you something might be amiss. Ask people you trust what they think.
  • Consider your priorities and ask what is important for you to do about a situation based on your values.

So let’s say you decided there is a problem. You, or someone in your organization, is ready to act in a way that is not aligned with your sense or your organization’s sense of integrity. What are you willing to do? To stay in integrity, you must:

  • Speak up with respect. If you want to stay true to your integrity, you must, no matter how difficult it might be.
  • Observe the reaction of those involved. Are they listening to you? Or are they vehemently defending their stance?
  • Be willing to walk away if you must. This could run the gamut from not participating in an activity that compromises your integrity to leaving your job. Yes, I said leaving your job. I know this sounds severe, but if integrity is truly an important value for you, what does it mean to stay in an organization that compromises that value? Are you staying true to your integrity by staying put?

Business is a powerful force in our world — and becoming more powerful. When you take a stand against unethical or immoral action, you make your corner of the world better. So stay vigilant to potential assault on your integrity, and take appropriate action if you must.

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16 Responses to “A silent leadership killer”

  1. Catalyst Business Dynamics says:

    Great post. I agree "speak up with respect" is crucial. If there's no show of respect then it can instantly devalue the content of what you are trying to say.

  2. Rebekah says:

    Excellent article! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Brian says:

    I would not leave a job because someone else (decisions are made people, not by an "organiztion") is asking me to do something unethical. And a boss would be hard pressed to push me too hard when I have spoken up in respect about something that is clearly unethical. Why make it so easy on the person asking me to do something unethical. In fact, I see people/bosses that will not be respectful if let myrself get pushed around and don't push-back when given directives that they "know" are unethical and I don't push-back.

  4. Jay Steven Levin says:

    While the topic is topical the issue is more nuanced than noted here.

    How issues are handled or not may have subtle or direct and immediate impact on us and our position of value to our company.

    Responding rightly requires careful consideration, strategic planning, research, insight into the personality and behavior of those you're dealing with, an understanding of how they handle problems, what motivates them, their work flow pace pace and more than a little practice in the art of communication and negotiation.

    Today, win-win situation require more skill and ability than this simple three step process implies.

    • Windsor Williams says:

      Jay. Do you think that "win -win" may require us to "agree – agree" ? The eroding/corresive effect /impact of diminshed integrity cannot be overstated. Its cancer like quality seeps into each and every crevice of an organization, ultimately and (painfully) destroying the company from within. Do the names ENRON and HEALTHSOUTH mean anything to you Jay? Your prescription of careful consideration, strategic planning etc., obviously have a place in every exec's toolkit. Can I just keepp it real? If company policy is to win at all costs, including lieing, cheating , stealing and obfuscating, them my friend "win-win" is not ultimately in that company's future.

  5. Bob Vanourek says:

    Excellent post and comments. Absolutely, you must know your personal values, as well as the shared values of your organization. Ideally, they will include integrity, one of the higher-order values (along with courage and character), as described by the Lees in "Courage: The Backbone of Leadership." However, one can't always rely on your gut. Read the best selling "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Kahneman to see why. If an organization has integrity as one of its shared values, as it should, then discussing important decisions before making them with trusted colleagues to see how it fits with the shared values is a great way to avoid missteps. Pushback when asked to do something that doesn't seem right is essential. Finally, some leaders and organizations are toxic, and one must have the courage to walk away from them to avoid being entrapped in ethical malfeasance.

  6. Stephanie says:

    When the recession hit, I believe some corporate leaders who lean towards unethical processes took advantage of the shift in power from employees to employers. As the economy recovers this type of employer will lose employees at an alarming rate. I worked for one such company and left my job even without a job lined up because it was clear to me that to not participate in questionable processes was regarded as "not being a team player." In my case, however, I am a licensed professional who is beholden to the ethics of my profession. It is not easy to leave a job based on your principles and taking the ethical path is always harder than sticking with the status quo but I find that the payoff is peace of mind upon which is invaluable.

  7. Ken Schmitt says:

    Bravo! This is an article that needs to be read, discussed and read again. In this day and age we are all encouraged to meet our own needs. The truth is, this push to get what we've earned or deserve has often caused us to push integrity aside and to the back of the line. Sometimes it's done with full knowledge of what we're doing. Other times, however, we are trying to put out fires, get ahead or simply keep our heads above water and as a result we make split second decisions that compromise our integrity.

    Ken C. Schmitt http://www.turningpointsearch.net

  8. Ken Schmitt says:

    For the past 4 years I have owned my own career management and recruiting firm. In this economy this has been no easy feat. But we've not only kept our doors open but been profitable and successful as well. My goals when starting my firm were to grow and expand and pay the bills as well as make a profit for myself. I knew that if those things were the focus of my business plan and I did not have a solid foundation of Core Values (http://www.turningpointsearch.net/about-us/philosophy/) it would be easy to do whatever it takes to reach those goals. As you stated above, having Core Values has helped me have a measure against which I make every decision from taking on new clients, adding to my team and choosing vendors. In many ways, these values are my compass that keeps me headed in the right direction for professional success and personal/professional integrity.

    Ken C. Schmitt http://www.turningpointsearch.net

  9. Bud Roth says:

    Mary Jo's article leads to the indictment that US business leaders are being unethical more often. This value of maintaining integrity in all business activities and relationships takes courage to execute integrity consistently. Of course other personal values need to be present to support integrity and ethical behavior. It takes courage to speak up and say what needs to be said. It takes courage to create more dialogue around a potential ethical issue. It takes courage to ask the uncomfortable questions. I suggest an action we can all take is to ask an open-ended question that addresses the potential issue. Well-formed questions create the dialogue to help others think, share thoughts and make better choices. This is a respectful approach. Yes, it is still uncomfortable. As coaches we know that "Nothing really changes unless you get uncomfortable." This statement has become a branding tag line with my business.

  10. Internal Control Freak says:

    We need more options when faced with ethical dilemmas. I speak from the perspective of having filed and settled a formal whistle-blower complaint. We need a formal organizational structure that has internal controls that address the inherent conflicts of reporting ethical and legal violations from within an organization and help protect people from disastrous consequences like walking away from your job. In today's world, that is NOT a realistic option, in my opinion.

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  13. Thank you very much on the subject