Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Can leaders ever recover from a lack of integrity?

The fall of Boris Johnson as UK Prime Minister has made me reflect on the nature of integrity in leadership. As an individual I don’t personally think he has displayed integrity in terms of his personal relationships, expressed beliefs or professional life.

It has also being far from edifying to see the attempts of his previous political allies to suddenly discover integrity.

One minister suddenly discovered his integrity after listening to a sermon, others who were happy to be go along with and defend the previous regime, suddenly discovered that they have principles in stark contrast to the way that they and their colleagues had been behaving for months or years. It seems that ambition had overtaken integrity both in the past and today.

The Cambridge dictionary defines integrity as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change.” They are by definition not strong moral principles if you change them when a job opportunity comes up, or after listening to a speech.

in our work on virtual teams training, we talk about how to build trust both in a face to face and virtual environment. Trust depends on consistently demonstrating both capability (do we do what we say we’re going to do, do we have the skills and application to succeed?) and character (what values and behaviours do we consistently demonstrate).

When we look at how leaders can recover from trust problems the distinction between capability and character becomes important. If we try our best but fail then people will forgive us if we acknowledge our mistake, build our skills, and try again in the right spirit. We can recover from capability problems.

However, what happens if we display a character defect, in this case a lack of integrity? Once someone has demonstrated their willingness to act without integrity, how can we ever trust what they do in the future. By definition they have demonstrated without doubt that we don’t have “strong moral principles that we refuse to change”.

To me decisions based on principles are the easiest ones to make, they are black and white and you don’t have to spend ages agonising about what the right answer is. If it conflicts with deeply held principles that you refuse to change, then you just say no.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s not difficult sometimes to live with the consequences of those decisions.

If you look back over your life and identify the high points and the low points, there’s a very good chance that the high points were when you acted according to your principles and values and the low points were when you felt forced to compromise them.

Maybe it’s foolish of me to look to politicians to demonstrate integrity, but I do expect integrity from business leaders.

Paradoxically, unelected business leaders are far more accountable to the public than elected politicians. It’s hard to imagine any CEO behaving in the same way or surviving the many scandals that were accepted as normal from a Johnson or a Trump. A social media storm and the risk of losing business tends to quickly have CEO’s out of the door at the hint of a scandal. But isn’t it terrible that we hold the leader of  a country to a lower standard than the leader of a company?

As politicians in the UK scramble for the top jobs in the next government I won’t be holding my breath expecting to see an outbreak of integrity, but I do think it’s a terrible example for the country and a condemnation of the political process that integrity no longer seems to be even expected, never mind demonstrated. I hope we in business continue to show that we, quite rightly, hold ourselves to different standards.

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