I bet many of you would say that leadership integrity has become sort of an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. I wouldn’t blame you. It’s hard not to be cynical when politicians promise anything to get elected; nobody gets punished when financial bubbles burst; and big company CEOs get enormous pay packages, even when they fail.
That said, those examples do represent some of the more eyeball-catching headlines in our scandal-hungry, 24x7 news cycle. The truth is, the vast majority of senior executives I’ve known over the decades have been men and women of integrity.
Besides, cynical business leaders who started with nothing, worked hard their whole lives, and sacrificed a great deal to build their companies and their wealth, might counter that society’s lightweights and deadbeats will do anything to game the system and take as much as they can get away with.
While those viewpoints might appear to be distinct, they’re almost certainly interdependent. It’s no wonder that more and more Americans have their hands out when they feel as if the deck is stacked against them. After all, workers can’t get away with failing to meet their commitments and still keep their jobs and their homes the way so many politicians and executives seem to.
That, to me, has always been one of the key arguments for leadership integrity: setting an example for the folks. If leaders don’t set and live up to high standards, how can they expect anyone else to?
The second reason is that those with high aspirations – who seek to accomplish great things – should strive to be the best at what they do. And integrity is most certainly a key measure of leadership capability.
The third argument is that, to be successful, leaders have to build trust with their stakeholders – their customers, employees, investors, and constituents. The only way to do that is to build credibility by delivering on their word.
The fourth reason is Karma: what goes around, comes around. After all, you have to live with yourself, your choices, your decisions, and your behavior. I don’t know about the afterlife, but in this life, integrity is its own reward and lacking integrity is its own punishment.
Speaking of headlines, we’ve recently seen two powerful examples of how leadership integrity pays off.
Whole Foods chief executive John Mackey recently co-wrote a book on Conscious Capitalism, a term that describes businesses that serve the interests of all their major stakeholders, from customers, employees, and investors to suppliers, communities, and the environment. There’s no doubt that Mackey has delivered on all those fronts and more since co-founding the health food supermarket 33 years ago.
And earlier this summer, Apple CEO Tim Cook chose to forfeit up to one third of his compensation if Apple’s stock underperforms relative to other S&P 500 companies. That’s up to $130 million over the term of his employment contract. Make no mistake, there’s no upside for Cook, just a powerful example of leadership integrity.
If I still haven’t convinced you that integrity is a good thing for leaders to strive for, I’m afraid you’re a hopeless case. Otherwise, here are seven ways to lead with integrity.
When you’re responsible, hold yourself accountable. The way leading politicians and top executives – I’m talking presidents and CEOs, here – make excuses, point fingers, and play the blame game these days is disgraceful. In my opinion, it’s the most visible sign of a terrible leader, hands down.
Tell people the cold hard truth. That goes for communication with all your key stakeholders: bosses, employees, peers, investors, and customers. Once you start sugarcoating the truth and telling people what you think they want to hear, that’s a slippery slope.
Close the loops you open. There’s a particularly obnoxious epidemic these days: managers reaching out to potential employees and vendors and then just slamming the door without so much as a “thanks but no thanks” message. In many cases, these people are desperately seeking jobs and business. Failing to close the loop is demoralizing and dehumanizing. It’s also bad leadership behavior.
Do the right thing. It takes a lot of courage to do the right thing regardless of personal consequences. While the decision is subjective, it does at least force you to confront potential moral and ethical consequences before you act. This should be one of every company’s and every leader’s core values.
Work harder than your people. I’ve known several CEOs who never got the respect of their people for one simple reason: they didn’t put in the hours. When the troops are working hard, their leaders should be too. Not only that, there’s nothing more demotivating than knowing your boss is a slacker. Nothing.
Show some respect to live humans. I used to have a rule for managers at every level: when someone’s in your office, don’t take phone calls. These days, that goes for mobile calls, emails, texts, tweets, whatever. When you’re talking to people, show them respect by giving them your undivided and undistracted attention.
Put your money where your mouth is. Do what you say you’re going to do. Walk the talk. Stick with it through thick and thin. There are plenty of ways to show stakeholders that you mean business, that they can count on you, that you’re in it to win, that you’re there for the long haul. You’ve got to have skin in the game like Mackey and Cook. That’s what I call leadership integrity.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.