Leading With Integrity

MAR-APR 2017|BY DR. KONSTANTINOS TASOULIS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR IN HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, ALBA GRADUATE BUSINESS SCHOOL AT THE AMERICAN COLLEGE OF GREECE
What is the meaning and significance of integrity in the 21st century?

Pondering on how I could explain the idea of integrity to my 7-year-old nephew, I considered stories about the value of ‘keeping one’s word and fulfilling personal promises.’ However, these virtues only partially capture the meaning of integrity; there’s more to integrity than consistency between words and actions. Under a different perspective, integrity is seen as an active commitment to a set of principles and values1. In discussing this idea with my nephew, I encouraged him ‘to do the right thing, even when nobody was watching.’

Integrity is an important quality in life for everyone but it seems essential for those who lead contemporary organizations. Leaders are role models who influence the behavior of employees at all organizational levels and their integrity levels spiral down and across the hierarchy. Leaders with integrity generate trust and a sense of security. Research shows that leadership integrity affects employee satisfaction and performance levels2. It comes as no surprise that a large-scale study found that integrity was the most desirable leadership trait across 62 countries3. Leading with integrity can inspire talented employees and contribute to the retention (or resignation) of millennials seeking meaning and purpose at work. Acting with integrity, aside from eschewing the legal implications of wrongdoings, also safeguards personal reputation and future career prospects.

In contrast with the high demand for integrity, a glance at the “real world” provides abundant evidence of integrity shortcomings in Greece and worldwide. Employees perceive leadership integrity as being in short supply. A US survey4 revealed that less than 50% of workers believed their senior leaders were people having high integrity.

In Greece, a key conclusion of the Transparency International5 report is that problems such as corruption originate ‘mainly from a crisis of values, which has imbued the country’s mentality and the institutions.’

Being a person of integrity is one of the most valuable human qualities in life and extolled in Aristotelian and Confucian thinking. It holds intrinsic value and affects our psychological being. In Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development, as we age we reflect at our lives and ask: “Did I live a meaningful life?” We may look back with contentment and a sense of wisdom, or we might feel that our lives were wasted and experience many regrets. In some leadership development programs, participants are asked to imagine themselves in the late stages of their lives giving a life speech in front of an audience of family, friends and colleagues. The purpose of such activities is to encourage self-contemplation and may enable an individual to work towards integrity. Although much of our psychosocial development occurs at early ages, reflecting on life’s experiences may help us rediscover ourselves.

The context in Greece and other parts of the world might not seem to favor integrity. It is in difficult times, nonetheless, that such an internal compass is most useful.  Individuals and especially organizational leaders should think clearly about their values and the degree of commitment towards them, because “if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything” (Gordon A. Eadie).

  1. Cox, Damian, La Caze, Marguerite and Levine, Michael, “Integrity”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=integrity
  2. Palanski, M., & Yammarino, F. (2009). Integrity and leadership: A multi-level conceptual framework. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(3), 405-420.
  3. House, R.J., Hanges, P.J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P.W., & Gupta, V. (eds.). (2004). Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. 880 pp.
  4. Kothari, V. B. (2010). Executive Greed. New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. Transparency International (2012). National Integrity System Assessment. Transparency International Greece. Retrieved from http://media.transparency.org/nis/cogs/assets/ge/pdf/Greece_NIS_EN.pdf

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