It is known that one of the most critical characteristics of any successful business executive is “integrity” and so once you can fake that, you have it made.

But it is one characteristic that can’t be faked, and as Evelle J. Younger (Attorney General California 1971-79) said “If you have integrity – nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity -nothing else matters”.

Webster’s dictionary defines integrity as a “… firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values”.

I prefer defining integrity as “What you believe is what you say is what you do”, and while this is easy to say, it does appear to be difficult for some people to understand.

Many executives do not appear to have accepted that no matter what they say, people in their organisation will mostly focus on their behaviours rather than their verbal positioning. It is not enough to just believe that if they say it, so it shall be. For example, no matter how much a CEO puts “The customer is number 1” in his speeches or his mission/vision/values statements, if he regularly avoids customers and complains regularly and vocally about customer issues, his organisation will understand that the CEO has little real concern for customer relationships and this will then influence the culture of the whole company.

The reality is that everyone watches every move that senior people make in any organisation, and tailor their behaviours accordingly, in the belief that this is what’s expected of them … after all, if that’s the way that senior people act, then so should they. This is particularly true of new hires into the company who generally try very hard to belong, and will therefore emulate behaviours that they see around them.

This was brought home to me with one board (that I worked with on some individual executive coaching), where the underlying behaviour was antagonistic and confrontational, and yet the board members were surprised that there was a major lack of co-operation between different parts of the organisation. After all “teamwork” was a key element of their printed and laminated values statement card which was ceremoniously handed out to every new hire at induction. Board members would be relatively civil to each other face to face, but would bad mouth each other to their subordinates (and to me) outside the boardroom. As a result, no matter how much or how regularly they talked about teamwork, it was not part of their belief system nor was it part of their behaviour patterns, and yet there was this belief that as long as they kept talking about it, it would automatically become reality. They were very surprised, and disbelieving, when I told them that the behaviour of the board itself was the problem. The CEO vehemently disagreed with my findings and ultimately decided to bring in someone like Mckinsey and Company to give them the real answers as to why things were not working. I hope it helps them as I have always believed that the definition of a consultant is someone who knows 120 ways to make love, but doesn’t have a girlfriend.

People will quite often confuse integrity with honesty. I have always seen one of the major differences being the fact that honesty is what you tell everyone else, whereas integrity is what you tell yourself, so integrity involves living and acting within your own personal belief systems.

President Bill Clinton tried to convince the world that he was being honest when he said “I did not have sex with that woman” by trying to redefine which acts the word “sex” actually included, and so under his specific definition he may have not been dishonest, but he certainly showed very little integrity.

By Bob McNeely, The White House, via Wikimedia Commons

As Albert Camus says “Integrity has no need of rules”.
It needs no rationalising as it is just based on the fact that actions speak louder than words, and that ultimately we will all be measured by what we do, rather than by what we have told the world about ourselves.

New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons



  1. Frank says:

    I like it, very true, very thought provoking.. your ” honesty is what you tell everyone else, whereas integrity is what you tell yourself”, says it all. rgds, Frank

  2. Adriana says:

    As a comparison to the “board example”, I have always believed that children, at least until the become independent, are the perfect mirror of their parents together. I am always amazed when I hear mothers complaining about their offspring…despite their “efforts”… I’m not saying I’m always satisfied, but when I’m not, I don’t tell the world how my child is unfair to me, I just know that he’s showing me in an uncomfortable way where I am wrong…


    “Life is full of risk” gave me some answers that I was looking for! Thank you!

  3. Les Hayman says:

    Adriana, you are on the right track but there are so many more early external influencers than family that affect behaviour patterns, particularly friends and teachers at school, as well as peer social trends. I know that many of my attitudes and beliefs came from my school days rather than from my parents … I was just fortunate to be at a good school. However I do agree that pre-school children tend to be a reflection of their parents … It always strikes me in restaurants and airplanes if children are allowed to run amok and their parents disregard the intrusion to those around them. Les

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