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Trustworthiness is the most essential quality of extraordinary leaders. Not many of us can think of a leader that we admire, respect, and would be willing to follow if we knew they couldn't be trusted. Unfortunately, every day we see more evidence of behaviors all around us that erode trust, and it seems no one is immune as we hear stories that involve politicians, teachers, policemen, religious leaders, coaches, corporate executives, husbands, wives, and so on. The root of all of this breach of trust can be traced back to someone’s lack of personal integrity. That is, when someone gives their word to behave a certain way, according to certain values and principles, and acts in a manner that is completely incongruent with what they gave their word to.
As I explained in my post titled “The Massive Power of Assuming Positive Intent,” we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior. The same is true when it comes to personal integrity. It is easy to see the enormous consequences of other people’s lack of integrity and wonder how they could have done such a thing, while we consider our own lack of integrity inconsequential. If we heard that a certain airline’s pilots were known to be sober on the job only 99% of the time, we wouldn’t fly that airline, but we are perfectly fine with being 80% in integrity ourselves. That is because we view the consequences of saying one thing and doing another to be minimal. Most of us wouldn’t even consider being 5 minutes late to an appointment, or missing a deadline, as lack of integrity. When we compare ourselves to the bad guys we hear about on the news, we are certainly in the clear, and when we look around in our workplaces and communities, we take comfort in knowing that we’re no worse than anybody else!
What we fail to realize is that most of the people who commit those enormous breaches of trust were not born psychopaths and criminals. Most of them were ordinary people, like us, who entertained a certain thought for a bit longer than they should have, and that thought manifested in the form of small actions, which eventually blossomed into bigger actions with more devastating consequences. We don’t see that the culmination of our choices that are not in line with our word, no matter how insignificant, significantly damage our ability to lead high quality lives and make a positive impact in the lives of others around us.
I’d like to demonstrate this point with a hypothetical question. If I offered you $1000 to walk on a wooden plank that was supported on both ends by blocks, about 6 inches off the floor, would you do it? What if the plank had a few cracks in it and it had a 50/50 chance of breaking? Would you still do it for $1000? I know I would. I mean, even if the plank broke, it is only 6 inches off the floor and I could safely hop off. Now, let’s assume that the same plank is placed between two skyscrapers on the 120th floor with no safety net and the cracks are still there, posing a 50% threat that the plank would break and you would fall to your death. I know for sure that you wouldn’t walk it for $1000, but would you do it for $1 million? Probably not, right?!
Now, I want you to imagine that the plank is your image of who you are and the cracks represent all the instances when you didn’t honor your word. When you say one thing and do another, no matter how small the deviation, you put more cracks in your plank. Whether other people notice or care or not, the greatest damage is done within yourself, in that you begin to relate to yourself as someone whose words don’t matter and whose commitments cannot be taken seriously. If you know that your plank has a lot of cracks, no matter how small they are, you tend to play a small game and settle for an ordinary life, but if you know that your plank is solid and you can count on yourself to keep your word and fulfill your commitments, you are much more likely to go for the gusto and play a much bigger game in life.
This is why it is important for us to look no further than ourselves to decide if we should cut a corner or miss a commitment. The key question is not whether others will notice or not, or whether the consequences of them finding out will be mild or severe. The truth is that, in many cases, other people may not even notice because it is an accepted norm to be 80% in integrity. In most organizations, being a few minutes late to meetings is perfectly fine, and committing to something and not following through is an everyday occurrence that nobody bothers to deal with because everyone subscribes to an unspoken agreement to tolerate each other’s lack of integrity. They have a deal that is gradually destroying the way they relate to themselves, diminishing the creative power of their words.
If you have ever been on the receiving end of broken promises and unmet expectations, you know how frustrating it can be. Chances are that you have been wishing that those people would change their behavior. Can you imagine the instant shift that can occur in the culture of an organization, a community, or a nation if we didn’t wait for someone else to go first? Can you see what would be possible if we all practiced unconditional personal integrity regardless of whether others did or not? I know this sounds naive, because we immediately think of the consequences if we take this on and others don’t. May I remind you that you wouldn't be doing it for anyone but yourself? You may think of the price you would have to pay for your integrity, but have you really thought about the cost of losing it, and the payoff of restoring it?
One of the best illustrations of this is the story I read in Stephen M. R. Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust, about tennis champion, Andy Roddick. In the 2005 Italia Masters tournament in Rome, his opponent, Fernando Verdasco, had lost the first set and was down 5-3, love-40. Verdasco served and the line judge called the ball out. Roddick noticed the indentation in the clay and challenged the judge’s call, and the judge let Roddick overrule him. Roddick went on to lose the set and ultimately the match, which cost him tens of thousands of dollars, but he managed to keep his integrity intact and he earned the admiration and respect of many around the world for his sportsmanship. Most importantly, can you imagine how he viewed himself and the power of his word?
The transformative power of personal integrity is unleashed in those defining moments when we choose to honor our word, even when it is inconvenient and costly. The higher the price, the more confidence we develop in ourselves that when we declare something bold, we can consider it done. We begin to relate to our word as a powerful weapon against any obstacle we want to tear down. When we know that we are a person of our word, all we have to do is to declare our future into existence and know that it will be, because we said so!
What if we went one step further and we were not only guardians of our own integrity, but cared enough about our family members and colleagues to stand for them being in integrity as well. What if we treated people as if they also cared about their plank being as solid as ours and didn’t just write them off as slackers who will never get it? What if we took a chance to have the courageous conversations that would compel others around us to reconsider their choices and restore their personal integrity? If you can imagine what would be possible, you will be far less likely to question whether or not you should pay the price.
If you are intrigued or even remotely interested in taking this idea for a test drive, I encourage you to take a couple of steps right now. Don’t wait until it is convenient, and certainly don’t listen to that little voice in the back of your head that hardly ever encourages you to do anything extraordinary. Start with small baby steps or go big, but whatever you do, do something before you talk yourself out of it. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Steps you can take immediately to develop and/or restore your integrity:
Identify one area where you habitually don’t honor your word and make a commitment to change your behavior, and start immediately.
If you have not been able to keep your word to someone in the past, you can still honor your word. Do that by cleaning up the mess you have made and owning up to your miss and making a new commitment.
If you have made commitments that you know you are not going to meet in the future, get in communication now and let the people who are counting on you know, and accept the consequences.
Next time you fall off the wagon, rather than using it as an excuse and saying, “I guess I just don’t have integrity,” or “I’m no worse than anybody else,” say, “I know I am better than that,” get back on track and clean up what you have to clean up.
The greatest price we pay for not honoring our word, and compromising our personal integrity is not that others won’t trust us, but that we begin to relate to ourselves as a person whose words and commitments don’t matter. Simple compromises like telling a “white lie,” or missing our commitments or not delivering on small promises that we make begin to erode our view of just how accountable we can be to follow through on what we declare. A commitment to unconditionally develop our personal integrity restores our power to boldly declare an extraordinary future and know that it will be, just because we said so! Being intentional about applying this idea alone can cause a transformation in anyone's life, and it is an absolute must for anyone who has been trusted with leadership responsibilities, because without integrity, there is no credibility and a leader without credibility is not an asset but a liability.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at email@example.com.
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