Integrity: A Non-Negotiable Skill

Any skill deficiency will kill a leader’s effectiveness, but a deficiency in integrity can be a career—and company—killer.

By Kathleen Brush

Following the global financial meltdown, a Wall Street broker was asked how it felt to be in a profession that went from being revered to reviled. He replied, “We didn’t do anything wrong. Show me where we violated the law.”

Didn’t do anything wrong?

This broker would not be the first person to misunderstand the differences between illegal and lacking integrity, and between legal verdicts and those from the court of public opinion. Every day managers engage in actions that are legal but lack integrity, often because they are confused about the definition of integrity. Go ahead, ask a manager (maybe yourself): “Do you lead with integrity?” The response almost will certainly be “Yes.” But what do they mean by integrity? They might engage in “harmless” practices such as expensing a dinner with their spouse, a discrete affair with a subordinate, some legal naked short-selling, a quick edit to alter a deadline or accounting entry, or taking a mid-workweek golf trip to Pebble Beach sponsored by a potential supplier. Lacking in integrity? Too ordinary for that.

The boss who expenses dinner with her spouse could find it so simple she does it on a regular basis. If she has to cancel an employee offsite that was meant to help morale, she can just say the CFO made her do it. The boss who accepts an expensive gift can find if she throws a little business to this supplier, the gifts keep coming. So what if the supplier’s products are a little over priced and the quality is less than required? Let’s face it, many people are careless stewards of company money. Low-grade components? Everyone cuts corners on quality. If she gets caught, she can blame it on the Chinese.

Are these crimes?

Everybody Does It

The boss playing hooky on the links probably regularly blends work and personal business. Sure, this leaves him pressed for time. But he makes up for it by motoring through approvals by flipping to the last page of proposals and affixing his John Hancock. One day, he signs off on opening an office in Jakarta and Harare, while smirking that he doesn’t know if these are countries or cities. As a garden-variety rubber stamper, he also didn’t know that the attached proposals enumerate significant threats that end up being very costly. Oh, well, everyone knows that doing business internationally is risky.

The boss who makes a quick deadline edit may do this regularly because he is disorganized or terrible at holding employees accountable. A few more delayed deadlines later and an important company objective wasn’t met. Still, a deadline-editing boss exhibits pretty ordinary actions. Who doesn’t cover their tracks from time to time?

Should bosses get integrity passes because their behaviors are ordinary? How about employees following in their footsteps? Do they get an integrity pass, too? In the book, “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” Duke University professor Dan Ariely notes that people are more likely to cheat or lie if others are cheating or lying. The boss as the role model is a perfect trendsetter for lying and cheating. Well, then, the employees have to get an integrity pass, and so do the ones who are inspired by their colleagues lying and cheating.

So be it. It’s just another ordinary boss leaving a trail of waste, delays, uninformed bad decisions, demotivated employees, and encouraging more of the same. Just another boss who has occasion to conjure up an excuse, execute a cover-up, do a little number fudging and some finger pointing, with the natural outcome of encouraging more of the same. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary.

But what if an excuse or cover-up ends up masking something that causes other problems? For example, a need to correct and reissue financial statements, a tax audit, a product being recalled, downsizing, or paying foreign workers severance packages that bankrupt the budget?

It really is so simple. Behaviors that are viewed as ordinary, albeit lacking in integrity, can seamlessly trigger a cascade of events that results in extraordinary problems for an organization’s integrity.

Case in Point

Charlie was the director for products at Corsonetti Industries. His boss, the CEO, was personally promoting Product B to investors and the media. He told Charlie that Product B was to ship on June 1. Charlie had a problem. It was May 31 and Product B had an intermittent problem his team had been unable to fix. He decided he had no choice but to submit paperwork that the product had passed all quality tests and was ready to ship.

Soon the intermittent problem without a fix began occurring. Frustrated customers began taking their anger to different social networking forums. Compelled to demonstrate he was doing something, the CEO marched into a packed engineering lunchroom and with a raised voice blamed Charlie for being incompetent and fired him. The exodus of talented engineers was swift and so was the decline in the company’s product sales. A layoff followed.

A manager short-changing the strategy process is another dead ringer for organizational integrity mayhem. Haphazardly conceived or executed strategies create plans that eventually will lose. However, in the process, they will be an ongoing source of problems that fuel excuses and cover-ups, organizational conflict, deadline slips, missed financial objectives, sacrificial lambs, and on and on. And it all started with a manager who prioritized something over his integrity.

House of Cards

Effective leaders need a variety of skills. In this monthly online article series, specific coverage has been given to the vital skills of motivation, strategy, and integrity. Which is the most important? Any skill deficiency will kill a leader’s effectiveness, but a deficiency in integrity can be a career killer. Integrity functions as a moral compass that guides a manager’s decisions and actions in strategy, employee motivation, finance, economics, marketing, and HR. A manager whose decisions are peppered by ordinary fibbing, shortcuts, self-aggrandizement, and edits is a role model for more of the same and the builder of a house of cards.

Kathleen Brush, Ph.D. (www.kathleenbrush.com) is the author of the new book, “The Power of One: You’re the Boss.” She has more than two decades of experience as a senior executive with global business responsibilities. She has a Ph.D. in management and international studies. Brush has been teaching, writing, and consulting on international business and leadership for companies of all sizes, including those that are public, private, foreign, and domestic.

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