Integrity is something that no one can fake. No amount of coercion can convince me that you are a person of integrity if you are not. As soon as you ‘relax’ your own values, as soon as you ‘allow’ the bending of your own morals or ethics, as a person or as a company, you can no longer be ‘in integrity’.

So many companies espouse wonderful values: ‘do no evil’ (Google); ‘be open, connect people’ (Facebook); ‘integrity – we work with customers openly, honestly and sincerely’ (Enron – remember Enron?!) – but how many LIVE to those values? The problem is that living to values creates ethical problems – we want to be the biggest and best organisation in our sector, so if we live our values, does that mean we can’t compete?

Integrity etymologically comes from the Latin ‘integritas’ meaning ‘wholeness, completeness’ and figuratively, ‘purity, correctness, blamelessness’ – its very etymology lets you know integrity is not something you can be ‘partially’. It’s all or nothing when it comes to integrity, and sadly more and more organisations are falling short when it comes to integrity.

The modern meaning is even more explicit – ‘honesty, honour, of the highest standards, ethics, morality, virtue, decency, fairness, truthfulness.’

If you have to go ‘find out’ if you’ve opted into something, or find out whether your interest rate has changed this year, that means that your bank or your search engine provider has not been completely honest with you.

Honesty does not mean we’ll tell you if you ask. Honesty means we tell you and are as open and transparent as we possibly can be in our dealings with you – full stop.

So what’s this got to do with you – The LEADER that is reading this?

Well, the latest leadership research points to the fact that the leadership value that people hold above all other things is ‘authenticity’.

Authentic comes from the Greek ‘authentikos’ which means ‘original, genuine, principal’ and its original meaning gives you a clue that when you’re authentic, you have to be clearly ethical and live the values you espouse – i.e.: ‘principled.’

And guess what the second most important leadership characteristic is?

Yep, you guessed it – ‘Having clear ethics and values’.

Authenticity in leadership means being who you are, not trying to be someone you’re not. It’s an acceptance of self and an acknowledgement of strengths and weaknesses. It means being open and honest whenever possible, admitting mistakes, acting with honour and being a ‘real human being.’

So as a leader, it’s important that you have integrity in all that you say and most importantly in all that you do. This doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect; it just means that it’s important to be true to who you are and treat all others as you would expect to be treated.

The problem is that right now we are not living our values in organisations, and as leaders we find ourselves constantly having to bend and corrupt our own values in order to stay in favour.

Almost every organisation has a published set of values – go into any organisational reception and you’ll see them framed and up on the walls. Go into the office and you’ll see them on office walls, hanging over desks, on mugs, on mouse mats and, a popular one right now, on screen savers on the computers – they are everywhere!

However, ask the average employee to state the company’s values and the likelihood is they’ll remember a few but rarely will they know them all. Ask that very same employee whether they believe the senior management LIVE to those values and act in accordance to them, and the likelihood is that they’ll say quite simply, ‘No.’

Now I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture of organisational practice right now, but we are seeing a worrying trend of previously value-led organisations beginning to wander away from the path of truth and integrity and allowing their values to slip.

So what can you do as a leader? Well, you can make a commitment today to be a more authentic leader: a leader who admits their mistakes, puts their hands up when they’ve got it wrong or stepped out of line. You can be a leader who stands up for the little guy and tells the truth even when those around you don’t seem to be.

When was the last time you thought about what your values and ethics are? By making a list (and by the way, I strongly urge you to do this as an exercise) you can refer back to it and decide those values that are most important to you, those that you cannot bend or waive.

Most leaders I come across in organisations right now are finding themselves at times hitting up against their values – perhaps it was being party to someone getting a roasting in front of everyone else in the last executive team meeting you took part in. Or perhaps it was watching a staff member being on the wrong side of a badly handled restructure or pay review. Maybe you watched a bullying leader get away with flagrant misuse of their power?

With your own written set of values and ethics you can refer back to, you can instantly remind yourself of what matters to you, and why that particular incident troubled you as a leader.

The problem for many of us is that we are conflicted. We want to speak up, we want to make a stand for what we believe to be right (and by the way, make a stand actually in most cases for the values that are on the wall behind us in that meeting) but we don’t want to rock the boat, we don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker and we don’t want to lose our jobs!

The irony is that I come across VERY FEW (I can count them on one hand still, in the 17 years I’ve been doing this!) leaders who do not want to live to the values that we all hold dear as human beings. Most people areprincipled and want to do the right thing where possible. So it is my belief that by being an authentic and principled leader ourselves, we encourage others to be so too. And for those that forget or slip, I find a gentle (and appropriately timed) reminder will often quickly allow them to come back to their core values.

When we are under stress and overwhelmed, there is no doubt that our behaviours get worse not better. We get grumpy, uptight, snappy – and that’s OK! No-one wants a perfect leader – they want a human being. All that’s important is that we don’t ignore our own behavioural transgressions and we stick our hands up and say ‘my bad! I’m sorry I was out of order yesterday’ – and you know what? Almost always that will make you a more endearing and authentic leader to your staff not less.

In this blog I’m not asking you to go beyond what you feel comfortable with doing. I’m asking you to stop and think what YOU stand for as a leader.

You have influence, at the very least with those that you lead in your team or department. Your staff will look to you to be the example, you ARE the role model to them, and so have a think about WHAT TYPE OF ROLE-MODEL you are being right now.

Are you rushing around like a mad thing, going to meeting after meeting? Are you available to them? Do you take your lunch breaks? Do you create time to prioritise your workload properly? Do you work all hours god sends? Do you work on weekends? Are you open and honest in your dealings with your staff? Do you celebrate your team’s successes? Are you guilty of pinging emails to everyone and rarely talking face to face? Are you exhibiting the behaviours that you’d like to see in your team? Do you admit your mistakes? Do you work well with your leadership team peers? Do you live to your values? Do you protect and stand up for your staff? Do you tolerate behaviour that perhaps you shouldn’t?

As a leader, it’s important to remind yourself that leading isn’t about getting everything done at all costs. Leadership means to LEAD – to forge a path for others to follow. It’s also about reminding people (and you yourself may need this too) what path they are on, and when they wander off path to bring them back to the right path, a path of integrity, that leads to a better place and a better organisation for all.

Integrity isn’t something you can fake. Authenticity in leadership cannot exist without a clear set of lived values and ethics. As a leader you have influence, and you have power – Use that power for GOOD.

At Meta we’ve been helping organisations re-connect to their values and live them. We help leaders like your good self in organisations to become authentic leaders who use their power to empower others. Now more than ever, it’s important to return to the values that enable creativity, innovation, quality, integrity (and yes, profits!) to flourish.

We believe it’s time to work in a way that engages, encourages and empowers your greatest asset (your leaders and your people) to be the very best they can be. It’s time to work smarter not harder and be a force for good in the world. If you’d like to find out more about the work we do, then we’re always up for a conversation, just get in touch – we’re in business to support leaders like you in any way we can.

Jo Clarkson








About Jo Clarkson

Jo Clarkson is the CEO of Meta and a frequent writer of the Meta-Org.com blog.
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