In the classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays the role of George Bailey, son of the founder of the Bailey Building and Loan Association. George’s life is marked with a number of moments of self-sacrifice and responsibility, but it is the contrast between his character and that of Mr. Potter, local businessman and bank owner who serves as the chief competitor to the Building and Loan, that provides a striking picture of integrity.
At some point in the story, George’s Uncle Billy takes a deposit from the Building and Loan to Mr. Potter’s bank, but in a moment of emotional response to Mr. Potter, he unwittingly misplaces the deposit in the banker’s folded newspaper. This is where the contrast in integrity becomes so apparent. When Mr. Potter realizes that Uncle Billy has “lost” the deposit, he seizes the opportunity to force the Building and Loan into bankruptcy and scandal. His lack of integrity is on display when he covers up the fact that he has the lost money, and tries to deceive George into selling out. George, on the other hand, refuses to compromise, resulting in a night of despair and potentially tragic choices, but culminating in the love and support of his family and friends.
Since the 1980’s, James Kouzes and Barry Posner have conducted extensive, global research on organizational leadership that has revealed the significant importance of integrity in leaders. The results of their research, presented in the book The Leadership Challenge (2002), have identified five practice of exemplary leadership, those behaviors that were consistently present among successful and influential leaders: model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart. But they also identified those things that followers most expected from their leaders. Having surveyed over 75,000 people around the world, they have discovered that one characteristic is expected more than any other: honesty. Their results have revealed that in almost every survey they have conducted, “honesty has been selected more often than any other leadership characteristic; overall, it emerges as the single most important ingredient in the leader-constituent relationship” (p. 27). They go on to say, “When people talk to us about the qualities they admire in leaders, they often use ‘integrity’ and ‘character’ as synonymous with honesty. No matter what the setting, everyone wants to be fully confident in their leaders, and to be fully confident they have to believe that their leaders are people of strong character and solid integrity . . . nearly 90 percent of constituents want their leaders to be honest above all else” (p. 27). The clear implication is that integrity matters. People will not follow a leader they do not trust, and their level of trust is directly connected to the leader’s integrity.
Why is there such a strong connection between integrity and effective leadership? To begin with, integrity is an attribute of someone’s character that is directly connected to consistency. In other words, when your beliefs and actions are not consistent with each other, you are viewed as hypocritical, but when your walk matches your talk (the essence of consistency in character), you are viewed as having integrity. People will then believe what you say because they believe who you are. This leads to credibility, or the confidence that you can be believed because of the integrity that you have demonstrated. Credibility, in turn, is followed by trust, and people will follow someone they trust.
Therefore the lesson is that integrity is crucial for effective leadership. And it must be something that is demonstrated over time in all circumstances. It cannot be a characteristic that you demonstrate in some circumstances, but not in others, picking and choosing when you think it will benefit you to act honest, like a jacket that you put on or take off to fit the mood or the environment. People will very quickly identify that behavior as disingenuous and dishonest. Rather it must be part of who you are all the time. For integrity to be believed, it must be genuine.
When I was young, I once heard integrity defined as the characteristic of choosing to do what is right even when no one is looking. That idea must be true of your actions in all circumstances; whether it is public or not, whether it is easy or not, whether it personally benefits you or not, you need demonstrate integrity. Do it in the big things, but also do it in the little things, in your daily choices of what you do, or what you say, or what you allow. If people know that you have integrity, they will trust you enough to follow you. So regardless of what type of leader you are, what your circumstances are, or what the environment is in which you lead, integrity must be a genuine and integral part of who you are, how you live your life, and how you lead. To be an effective leader, you must lead with integrity.
Kouzes, J. M., and Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.