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Leadership + Business

Is Integrity the Secret to Great Leadership?

by Joel Peterson

If your spouse claims that time with the family is a priority but spends every weekend on the golf course, you might rightfully conclude that he’s really more interested in lowering his handicap than raising his child. If a business leaders pretend that customer service is the top priority, but won’t ever risk profits to delight a client, they have probably chosen to sacrifice tomorrow’s customer for today’s gain. Such hollow promises create phony hopes, destroying trust and causing untold damage to any organization.

The actions of a business are its value statement. Actions speak volumes about what really matters most – not what should matter, not what we wish mattered, but what really does matter to us. They swamp mission statements, speeches or memos, and they eclipse intentions.

Having the kind of integrity that leaves no room between what we say and what we do is really hard work. It’s much easier to follow the words of JR Ewing of the TV series Dallas, who said: “Once you lose your integrity, everything’s easy.” Lots of people have chosen this path. Others find it to be too much work to align their decisions and actions with what they claim as priorities.

Many are simply out of touch, preferring to believe that their intentions – rather than their actions – are their priorities. This is because intentions usually sound better and are loftier; and unfortunately, when we take a hard look at our actions, we may not like what we see.

But ignoring them is a form of self-deception. It’s better for business leaders to assess what is actually being done and label it outright: “our priorities”.

If you force yourself to look at where you actually spend your time and what you do with your resources, you may notice an internal conflict arising. It will not revolve around what I think of as “level 1 integrity” – things like never lying, cheating or stealing. Instead, it will likely challenge your “level 2 integrity” – the kind that has to do with not being divided or misaligned.

With level 2 integrity, values are consistent with clear objectives, supported by marketplace realities and internal assignments, and gauged by clear measurements of progress. Think of level 2 integrity the way a civil engineer might think of structural integrity.

This is a demanding form of integrity. Even the newest, least-trained, lowest-level employee can detect it. If you say one thing and do another, you may get away with convincing them you have level 1 integrity. But you’ll never fool them into believing you’ve reached level 2. To claim otherwise means you won’t really be trusted.

How do you build level 2 integrity? After setting aside your intentions and paying close attention to how you actually spend your time and money – establishing whether your actions align with your priorities – ask yourself where your mind goes when it’s “on its own”. Think about what you do in a crisis. In a world of scarce resources, check out how you allocate them. For example, consider not only how you spend your 24 hours every day, but also how you plan to allocate your years.

Finally, carefully consider those with whom you spend time, marry, employ, work and play. These are all the stuff of values, of trade-offs and of priority-setting – of inchoate desires. Do you like what you see? If you’re similar to me, being forced to label these answers as priorities may be enough to provoke change.

Once when I took on a CEO role, I found myself talking about the importance of customers – of ways to delight them, to respond to what they wanted, to anticipate their needs. When my assistant pointed out that I was spending all of my time on internal meetings and on new initiatives, she caught me. From then on, I scheduled time every week to call customers. They were stunned – and so was I at what I learned. My priorities went from talking about customers in the abstract to making sure I knew what they were thinking.

If you’re leading a team or a company, if you’re part of a family or teaching a class, your only lasting message will be what you do, not what you say. If you can achieve level 2 integrity, you’ll be looked to for leadership.


Published in collaboration with LinkedIn.

Author: Joel Peterson is the chairman of JetBlue Airways, and the founding partner of the investment firm Peterson Partners.


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