Want to Lead with Integrity? Set an Absolute Course!

Leadership expert John Maxwell once defined integrity as the “state of being complete, unified…” Though I agree, I think we can go even further in defining it. A much stronger definition of integrity, I believe, is given in the The American Heritage Dictionary. It defines integrity as “steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code; sound.” ‘Sound’ is further defined as “free from defect or damage.” The uniting of these two definitions more clearly identifies what traits someone should possess before we can say they have “integrity.” Only by “steadfast adherence to a moral code” can a leader realize true integrity. Being “complete” or “unified” is only the beginning of setting us on the right path. Integrity is a fortress assembled brick by brick, through an unwavering commitment to a set of absolute standards. This fortress called “integrity,” if embodied by the leadership, provides an organization with a solid foundation for success and bring many tangible benefits.

The first benefit and cornerstone of integrity is trust. Too often the mantra in leadership is “Do as I say, not as I do.” At its foundation this approach to leadership is self-serving; it seeks only to accomplish the demands of the leader without considering the effect it has on those forced to carry them out. Anyone who has children can attest to the frustration of this philosophy every time their child models the poor behavior they have seen exhibited by their parents. While children may follow their parent’s directives out of necessity, or perhaps even fear, they will never fully respect authority that is a bad example. It is hypocritical and illegitimate. This results in a failure of trust, trust that the leader has issued directives for the right reasons—out of conviction—not an act borne of personal pragmatism. Subordination should not be simply the result of the leader having authority, Maxwell says, but by leadership having a positive influence—influence that inspires a willingness to obey.

We find such inspiration in the Bible. Moses inspired this kind of trust. Moses faced the pharaoh, led the flight from Egypt, and crossed the Red Sea. His leadership and successes led to the Hebrews trusting him and his decisions, even if that trust was—at times—somewhat wavering. But if that trust, however minute, had not been evident, every directive given by him would have been met with suspicion. Moses was successful in leading the Hebrews from the Egyptian captivity to the borders of the Promised Land because they trusted him and the Godly standard he represented. There can be no integrity in a leader who is not trustworthy.

Trustworthiness brings with it the ability influence others. Having a reputation for the doing the right thing because it is the right thing—without first considering how it may or may not benefit the leader—exhibits a moral commitment that inspires people to act the same way. For example, a leader who is not willing to accept blame for a mistake, but instead passes blame off to a subordinate who is not responsible for the mistake, is not likely to be trusted. Hence, their ability to inspire others to follow them is diminished because their lack of integrity has now called their judgment into question. In contrast, however, a leader who is consistently willing to accept responsibility for his actions is more likely to be followed since subordinates see he is willing to put his name on his plan—for better or worse. He will be seen as one who is not likely to make decisions without first considering the consequences. A business leader in any community is more likely to acquire business contacts and retain clients if he is known to do the right thing, even if it is not beneficial to his bottom line. In most communities, businessmen who are known for this often serve as examples to other business leaders. Subsequently, with this in mind, their subordinates are more likely to heed his directives and follow his example.

Leaders must be cautious, though. Trust and inspiration—once established—can quickly be eroded if the leader does not consistently hold himself to the same standard he expects of his subordinates. There is an old cliché that asks “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” Sometimes talking the talk can inspire people for short periods. Eventually, though, a leader will lose credibility if he is seen as just a talker. People expect others to live by the same standards they verbally affirm for other people. This is exactly why Christians hear “Judge not, lest ye be judged” so often. It is not because judging is wrong. It is because people do not want to be judged by those who do not live by the same standard they are demanding of others. This applies more urgently to leaders. There is a tendency for some leaders to think that once they have achieved a position of authority, even if they achieved that position initially with trust and influence, they can play fast and loose with the rules, bending and twisting them for their own benefit.

These types of leaders wrongly assume at this point that simply asserting authority for authority’s sake is enough to get subordinates to toe the line. But this does not work. People in authority must also “walk the walk.” Very few people are willing to perform for a leader those things which the leader is not also willing to do himself. If a leader wants to be respected and trusted, he needs to lead from the front of the pack, not the rear.

Once a leader has actually proven himself to be a leader—not simply pretended to be one—he has established the core of a solid reputation and respectability among his subordinates and is accepted within his sphere of influence. He is recognized as someone who believes on the inside what he portrays on the outside. His decisions are known to be consistent, well-reasoned, and beneficial to all parties. His convictions cannot be shaken. Thus, he is respected for who he really is, not what position of authority he holds; he has achieved respectability as a consistent and competent leader.

Respectability, however, like all of the other benefits of leading with integrity, is quickly lost if a leader fails to continue doing it. Thus, leaders must be motivated by something higher than themselves. Morals and values among men seem to shift with every generation. So, in a pragmatic sense, it might seem easier to lower our standards as society lowers theirs while still maintaining a higher standard than what society expects, or even defines as admirable. But, is that high enough? After all, even a group of poor performers inevitably has one who has performed the best of the poorest. Simply being the best of the worst is no real accomplishment. Leaders should strive to be motivated by the best of the best, no matter how low the standard of expectation.

This approach agrees more with the understanding of integrity in the introductory paragraph. This is where the Biblical standard of leadership is applicable. Christian leaders especially must aspire to that high standard defined by the Bible, not the prevailing wisdom of the time. It is this wisdom that the apostle Paul recommended that Timothy, the young pastor, hold close to his heart so he may be found perfect and complete (II Timothy 3:16-17). This agrees with Maxwell’s initial definition of integrity, even in the face of declining standards (I Tim. 4:1-7; II Tim. 4:1-5).

It is crucial to understand this because, had Timothy compromised what he knew to be right, he would have been lauded as being open-minded and progressive in his thinking. However, there is no virtue in challenging moral absolutes, though it may seem in vogue. This is precisely what Paul warned Timothy that men would want from his leadership. But that is not the standard to strive for. Paul exhorted Timothy to hold himself to the absolute standard that God had set to make “full proof” of his ministry. Leaders should make “full proof” of their example, too. The not-so-subtle erosion of standards that exists in our present society is something we must guard against. We should not lower our standards because society does.

A consistent and unwavering submission to a firm standard, combined with the aforementioned trust, influence, and respectability establishes credibility. This credibility means your word is your bond. No oaths are necessary, no witnesses to testify on your behalf. Your character will stand on its own. This carries with it the expectation that that you and your belief system are one and the same. This consistency, Maxwell asserts, is the key to effective leadership. But integrity in leadership is something that needs to be achieved. It cannot be given, fabricated, or covered in insincerity. It must be pursued. But even once it is achieved, it must be guarded by he who has it because so much depends on it. If guarded successfully, I believe, as Maxwell suggests, we can define a leader who earns, guards, and maintains his integrity as a leader who is “complete and unified.”

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serenityjmiller 16 months ago from Brookings, SD

Very, very good perspective. I've been examining I Timothy for the final paper of my biblical studies colloquium, focusing on application of the leadership qualities in 3:1-13. I find it interesting to note that Paul warned Timothy about others who would fall away, exhorting him to "fight the good fight" anyway. There are times when leading with integrity must be its own reward.

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