Tony Dungy, the former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts has said it is “the choice between what’s convenient and what’s right.” It is the one characteristic that clearly identifies and separates true leaders from those who only pretend to lead.

Dungy describes integrity as the characteristic that requires you, as a leader, to be true to yourself and your set of values and beliefs, particularly when you are faced with dire consequences. In his book, Winners Never Cheat, best-selling author Jon Huntsman, Sr. tells story after story of businessmen and women who knew the meaning of honesty and integrity. He goes on to also say the newspapers are filled with stories of others who folded like a lawn chair when their honesty and integrity failed.

His information technology consulting firm was engaged to write an order entry system for a United States-based international company. Things were going well on the engagement until the chief operating officer (COO) of the company called Dan into his office and asked him to make some changes to a few applications. Dan balked and asked the COO if the changes were legal. The COO replied that Dan and his firm had better make the changes or he would see to it that Dan’s firm would never work in that city again. A defining moment in Dan’s career and a defining moment in the life of the IT firm, to say the least. That was when Dan looked at the COO and told him they were not going to make the changes and if the COO felt he could damage the IT firm’s reputation in the community, then he could just go right ahead and try, but Dan told the COO he would never get away with it, as he walked out of the man’s office.

Integrity simply means, as Tony Dungy alluded to, doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, and doing it consistently. Part of that includes making promises and keeping them, even if you don’t want to do it. In the above story, it all worked out well. The COO called Dan back into his office the next day and apologized.

As one of the leaders in your business, you have to identify alternatives, develop recommendations, and make informed decisions. Those decisions will help define your career and aid in the growth and continued development of your company. Many times you have to take the road less traveled and make unpopular decisions that will impact the employment status of a coworker or even terminating a longstanding partnership. It is all part of the leadership process, but even more so, many people do not realize that each and every time a decision has to be made, integrity is an integral part of it. Over time, all the decisions you make define your character and cement your integrity (or not), as part of the leadership dynamic. 

Marcel Schwantes, the founder of Leadership From the Core does a very good job of defining integrity, from a business context. “To reach that state of loyalty where people trust you at your every word requires the daily act of exposing your values, beliefs, convictions, and morals to others in close quarters. When your actions are observed, and you know you can trust your own actions out in the open, your reputation is upheld. People never question your decisions or challenge you on an issue that opposes your character; they know where you stand.”

On the downside or slippery slope of integrity, Warren Buffett has been quoted as saying “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Most leaders with integrity have little difficulty in discerning the truth in a particular situation and facing it in direct fashion. They are not afraid of the truth. In fact, most leaders openly embrace it. The overlay of integrity and truth means telling the truth and nothing but the truth, even if it is bad. Further, just because leaders should embrace the truth in order to confirm their integrity, all leaders need to realize they could be wrong. In fact, many leaders fail because they are too prideful to admit they were wrong or don’t want to admit it because it could be construed as a sign of weakness. They need to do it anyway.