Plays Well With Others – Can Integrity Be Learned?

In a past post , I talked about the work of Dr. William Cohen, a renowned expert on leadership.  In Dr. Cohen’s work, he describes eight frequently recurring characteristics among excellent leaders, one of which is “absolute integrity”.

However, this characteristic got pushback from several readers.  The general thread seemed to be “You either have integrity or you don’t.  It’s not something that can be learned”.  So let’s take a step back and examine the idea of whether integrity can be learned.

I think that some of the pushback that I got about learning integrity comes from people who group integrity into the same set of characteristics as “sense of humor” or “artistic flare”.  When we look at most adults, either they have those traits or they don’t.  But even with these innate traits, although you can’t just sit down in a classroom and learn to have a sense of humor at 45 years old, can’t they also be learned in some form or another? After all, most children start out with a ready ability to laugh and a happy willingness to smear paint and scribble crayons on a slip of paper.  At some point in their lives, they internalize a portion of those experiences into their personalities.  I think, by extension, that integrity falls into the same general category.  It’s learned at a young age and, if malformed prior to adulthood, is unlikely to change.  It is unlikely to change, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot.

In some ways, I think the question of whether integrity can be learned also entails an understanding of what the word “integrity” means.  In some cases, we might have an internal definition of a particular word, like integrity, which doesn’t match what other people or even the dictionary says the word means.  In this case, according to, integrity is the steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code.  My own personal connotation for the word integrity means steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code when no one is watching or holding you to account.  In other words, you have integrity when you behave morally whether or not anyone is watching.

The opposite of integrity, in my mind, is “situational ethics”.  Situational ethics is the concept that the situation dictates what your ethic parameters should be.  I might be trustworthy today with money because I’m not having any money problems, but tomorrow – well, that’s another day. 

Many a person entrusted with money has used situational ethics to rationalize lifting a few dollars out of the money drawer when no one was paying attention.  “I’m broke and I really need this money to buy medicine,” they might think.  In contrast, a person with high integrity could be trusted with that same money drawer when left alone, despite their personal money problems, just as if the boss was standing right beside them.  Similarly, a sales person without much integrity might tell a boldfaced lie to get a customer to buy a product, knowing that their product doesn’t do what the customer needs.  The sales person thinks to himself “I have to make quota or else I’ll be punished, after all”.  On the other hand, a sales person with integrity will honestly tell the customer about the limitations of their product though that might risk losing the sale.

People who do not have a lot of integrity will often remain set in their ways.  However, there are two scenarios that can help them learn to exhibit integrity.  The first, and much more dramatic way to learn integrity, is the crisis.  When we encounter a person without much integrity, it’s pretty common to hear on-lookers say “Oh my, he’s going to have to learn the hard way”.  The hard way is usually a very public and painful crisis.  There are many examples of people who’ve had to learn integrity the hard way.  Two good examples are John Dean and Charles “Chuck” Colson.  Dean and Colson were operatives for President Richard Nixon, counted among the most scheming and conniving of Nixon’s Watergate lieutenants.  After their exposure and fall, both men have demonstrated complete reversals of their moral compasses.  You can read more about their interesting lives on Wikipedia.

The second scenario that people learn to exhibit integrity is to willingly operate in a mode of “transparency”.  Of course, many business processes are designed to be transparent so that management can hold individuals responsible for their actions.  And as a result, many people without much innate integrity will try to skirt those business processes; for example, all the systems put in place to thwart shoplifting and “shrinkage” in retails sales.  However, many leaders intentionally put systems in place so that they’re never even faced with the temptation of compromising their integrity.  For example, the famous American evangelist Billy Graham never allowed himself to be alone with any woman besides his wife.  This was not because he felt he couldn’t be trusted alone with temptation, but simply because he wanted to insure that he was always able to give a full accounting of his behavior towards women in a positive light. 

You could argue that it was because Graham already had high integrity that he put such a process in place – and I would agree with you.  However, many leaders, knowing their own limitations and internal struggles, frequently put measures in place to make their actions and behaviors more transparent thereby raising their level of integrity.  This helps them uphold their ideal level of integrity through accountability.  I once knew a business leader who was terrible about communicating with his team.  He was closed-lipped and inscrutable.  When he did speak, it was usually in negative tones that frequently demoralized his team.  The good news though was that he knew this was not where he wanted to be.  So he eventually put a system in place where one of his senior team members essentially became his “speechwriter”, double checking his emails and helping him prepare his public speaking engagements.  He wanted to do better, knew his limitations, and put measure in place to closely examine those areas where he might succumb to his natural but counterproductive impulses .

Accountability processes are one reason why businesses publish a lot more information than the
average person cares about.  PASS, for example, publishes both their financial information and meeting minutes to demonstrate both the priorities of the organization and that the leadership of the organization is behaving in the best interest of the membership.  In a situation like this, transparency – in and of itself – helps cultivate integrity.

So what are your thoughts on integrity?  Is it unlearnable?  Have any great stories where someone in your experience demonstrated great integrity or had to go through some major ordeals to learn it?  I’d like to hear more!

And as always, your comments and thoughts are appreciated.  

– Kevin

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