“Always do the right thing, even when you think no one is watching” seems to be the most widely accepted definition of integrity. We often speak about integrity’s relationship to leadership, so much so that I fear the sense of urgency to behave with integrity is diluted. It quickly becomes simply another management buzzword, as if by saying it enough times we can somehow replace with spoken word the necessity to exhibit integrity in every second.
When I was in college at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, I associated integrity very closely with our honor code, which was a highly revered component of our institution. “A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” It was a sacred promise that, if violated, almost certainly meant expulsion. Looking back, I recognize that I defined integrity too narrowly. Integrity is so much more than a basic code of conduct. The honor code was just the minimum standard by which we were expected to live our lives.
Bolted to the wall in the passageway of each barracks building, placed opposite from the honor code, is a brass plaque with a profound quote from Robert E. Lee: “Duty is the sublimest word in the English language.” I believe General Lee’s words get much closer to what integrity truly is. As leaders, we are obligated to commit ourselves fully to our team and our work. It is our duty. We must enter into our leadership responsibility with zeal and conviction, day after day, hour after hour. In the rain and the heat, through both challenges and fair weather, our teams demand our complete commitment and dedication. Leadership with integrity is to lead with balanced reason and emotion, rigid fairness, and an unwavering desire to do what is right and necessary to advance the mission and care for every member of the team.