Leadership Begins with Integrity

March 30, 2023

Think of an outstanding leader. He or she is likely charismatic, effective and a great communicator. And no matter who you’re thinking of, this leader very likely demonstrates integrity as part of their character. Without integrity, there can be no great leader.

Leadership takes many forms and is defined in different ways. But to become a great leader, there needs to be a foundation of integrity above and beyond all else.

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway with a current net worth of $104 billion, has had a long and successful career demonstrating integrity. He also promises to give away 99 percent of his fortune to philanthropic causes.

“We look for three things when we hire people,” said Buffett. “We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb.” In other words, don’t hire anyone without integrity.

Integrity is about the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. It’s about doing the right thing even when no one is looking. Those with integrity are the people you want to surround yourself with—both in the workplace and in your personal life.

When I was interviewed for one of my first professional jobs, the president of the company told me he was looking for two characteristics in the people they hire: integrity and a sense of urgency. Years later, after leaving the company, I discovered how rare it was to find both characteristics in the people I worked with at other companies.

Many use the word “integrity” indiscriminately when describing the values that are important to them or to spice up their resume. But integrity is less about what people claim in words and more about what they demonstrate in their behavior. “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do,” wrote James Baldwin. Your actions speak louder than your words, as the saying goes.

The best leaders are those who continually demonstrate integrity in the way they conduct themselves and they demand it in those they hire.

Integrity is revealed in character traits such as being responsible, honest, respectful, and trustworthy. It shows up in expressing gratitude for other people.

Those with integrity, model it by:

  • Taking responsibility for their actions
  • Treating everyone with respect
  • Seeking to learn at every opportunity
  • Remaining humble regardless of their position
  • Being accountable always
  • Helping others without expecting something in return

Think of leaders in your own workplace. Do they model this behavior? The ones who do are those you should emulate if you want to continue to grow as a leader yourself. If you can’t find someone within your company, seek to find one in another company who you can model yourself after. And maybe consider moving on to another company where you’ll find leaders with integrity.

In the workplace, you can demonstrate your own integrity by:

  • Doing what you say you will do—be dependable and follow through on your commitments.
  • Communicating in a way that is transparent and true to your word.
  • Owning up to your mistakes and holding yourself accountable.

These three things will help you to grow in your leadership capacity. They will also help you demonstrate that you are a person with integrity. And nothing will propel your career more than demonstrating integrity in all your behavior.

Integrity First and Foremost

April 13, 2010

“I look for three things in hiring people. The first is integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is a high energy level. But, if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” Warren Buffett

These days the word integrity is thrown around almost as often as the word awesome. And in the same way few things can be accurately described as awesome, I find few of our celebrated leaders demonstrate integrity.

Witness the news of the past few weeks where countless celebrities, sports stars, government officials, and business people demonstrated a lack of integrity in their behavior. Are we expecting too much out of these media-hyped people?

Integrity is defined as an adherence to moral and ethical principles, soundness in moral character or honesty. And unlike other knowledge and skills of leadership, integrity is not something one can learn and experiment with now and then.

We should seriously question the leadership of those who have failed us with a lack of integrity. Leaders in business and elsewhere need to consistently demonstrate integrity or we should reject them. Because without integrity there can be no true leadership. And unlike other qualities of leadership, integrity is either there or it isn’t.

So what does this say about the fallen leaders we honor so highly in our society? Did they delude us or did we delude ourselves?

Identifying integrity in someone is challenging because it is found within a person’s moral fiber or character. It isn’t something they can simply document on a resume or easily demonstrate in an interview. Integrity is proven through consistent behavior over time and verified by the people around them.

“The people with whom a person works, and especially subordinates, know in a few weeks whether he or she has integrity or not,” writer and management consultant Peter Drucker stated in The Daily Drucker. “They may forgive a person for a great deal of incompetence, ignorance, insecurity, or bad manners. But they will not forgive a lack of integrity in that person.”

Many charismatic leaders enjoy lots of media attention, but charisma can only go so far if there isn’t a solid foundation of integrity beneath the surface. We should question the supposedly strong leaders the media presents us with because simply reaching celebrity status does not make for a strong leader. In fact, it could mean just the opposite.

Great leaders model integrity through their honesty and by doing the right thing no matter the circumstances. Those leaders with integrity do what is right for the organization and the people within it—even when he or she may gain nothing from the outcome.

Strong leaders demonstrate an indisputable track record of integrity throughout their career. Look for it and demand it in those you choose to follow. Integrity is not the only quality to look for in a leader, but it may very well be the most vital.

Mark Craemer       www.craemerconsulting.com