The Importance of Integrity

Why cheating a little hurts a lot

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 11, Issue No. 3
June, 2012

By Dan Coughlin



If you are serious about being a great business leader, then you need to be serious about acting with integrity. Integrity alone will not make you a great business leader, but if you act without integrity you will eventually erode your opportunity to influence other people.

In every business relationship, whether it’s with an employee, a colleague, a boss, a customer, or a supplier, the other person is asking himself or herself three questions:

Can I trust you?
Can I work with you?
Can you help me achieve the results I want?

The first question is about integrity, the second question is about chemistry, and the third question is about competence. To have a great business relationship, you have to have all three. The starting point is trust. This is just as true in business-to-business relationships as it is in business-to-consumer relationships. Integrity is the foundation of a trusting relationship. If another person doesn’t know what they can count on from you, how will they be able to trust you?

Leadership, to me, means influencing what other people think about in ways that generate better sustainable results both for the organization and the people in it. How can you influence the other person if the person doesn’t trust you? First, you need people to trust you. Fortunately most people will trust you until you convince them that you are not trustworthy. However, once you lose that trust it’s very, very hard to ever regain it.

Integrity is critical in small businesses and in massive, multinational corporations. It’s the basis for maintaining relationships.

The Three Forms of Integrity

I believe there are three types of integrity: internal integrity, external integrity, and the image of integrity. All three are important if you want to be a great business leader over the long term.

Internal Integrity

I teach an eight-month long class for eighth graders every year, and my first question is, “How do you define integrity?” By far the most popular answer is, “Doing what you think is the right thing to do even when no one else is looking.” And every year I smile, nod my head, and say, “I love that definition.”

That answer gets to the heart of internal integrity. Every time you do what you think is the right thing to do even though no one else saw you do it and you will never get credit for it from anyone else, you have taken a big step toward strengthening your internal integrity. When this decision is really hard for you and you still do what you think is the right thing to do, you take a really big step toward strengthening your internal integrity.

Why is internal integrity so important? The first step toward getting people to trust you over the long term is for you to trust yourself. When you know that you can count on yourself to do what you think is the right thing to do, you will move forward with greater self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-discipline. Notice each of those three terms starts with “self.” That’s you. Obviously not every day is a parade. Not every day will you get a great new customer or deliver a great presentation, but every day you can act in a way that you know you can count on yourself. (There’s that word again.)

Internal Integrity is the first ring around the core of a trustworthy person. You might be able to fake the other two for awhile, but if you lack in internal integrity you will eventually demonstrate that lack in yourself toward other people, and they will realize they are dealing with a fake.

External Integrity

External integrity is what you show other people. Do you walk your talk? Do you do the things you said you would do? If you told a group of people you would follow up with a difficult employee or customer situation and then you actually did it, they will trust you in future situations. However, if you don’t do what you said you would do, they will doubt you in future situations, and eventually they might get to a point where they stop trusting you completely.

Of course, there are times when you will have to do something different than what you said you would do. Circumstances can change and consequently those changes can cause you to adjust your actions. You can still maintain your integrity even though you had to do something different than what you had promised to do. I believe the key in those situations is to go back and explain very clearly why you had to change your plans.

External integrity affects not only your own business relationships, but it can also affect your organization’s brand. Companies make brand promises. When individuals consistently drop the ball and don’t fulfill what their company has promised to customers and suppliers and employees, the company’s brand weakens and can eventually collapse. Bad economies can hurt a business, but bad integrity can hurt it even faster. Maintaining high levels of integrity is not only important for the results you personally generate, but it is also important for the results of your organization.

True Integrity Integrates Internal and External Integrity

You have to have both. defines integrity as the state of being whole. To me, that means a person with true integrity has his or her internal and external integrity integrated as one solid whole. It’s not enough to do the right thing when no else is looking, and then not do what you promised other people you would do. It’s also not enough to always demonstrate integrity when you are with other people while you have a secret life that lacks in integrity. Those secrets have a way of coming out and then people doubt everything about you.

At this point, I considered making a list of well-known people who have had their secret lives exposed showing they were not the people others thought they were. Then I thought that’s taking the easy way out. You and I can always point our fingers at other people and talk about their lack of integrity. However, that’s missing the point. The key is for us to look at our lives and identify any lack of true integrity within ourselves and then work to close those gaps.

My Lack of Integrity

Recently, one of my gaps in integrity was highlighted for me. I was at a youth soccer tournament as one of the coaches and a lesson was driven home for me again: real integrity means you are the same person in public as you are in private.

Twenty-six years ago I read a book by John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach, called, They Call Me Coach. In it he talked about never swearing in front of his players. He learned the value of not swearing from his father. Since then I made a strong commitment to never swearing in public. In all these years, I think I can remember less than a dozen times where I used foul language in a business situation, as a high school teacher, as an athletic coach, or with my family. However, when I’m by myself I use really intense foul language all the time. I think my swearing goes back to my high school and college days where hardly a sentence was ever uttered by anyone without containing words beginning with f, d, g, or s.

I avoided swearing when the games didn’t go our way that weekend or when I was discussing a play with a referee. I didn’t swear when speaking with the players or with the parents. However, at one point during the weekend, I told my ten-year-old son, Ben, to wait in the lobby with the other players while I packed our car. When I got to the car, I realized I had left one of our suitcases in our hotel room. Thinking I was all by myself, I said out loud, “What the (blank)? Where is my suitcase?” I turned around and I saw Ben walking toward me with another player. I thought they heard me, and I was totally embarrassed. They went into the other player’s car to get something with his mom. They didn’t hear my foul language, but I was so upset that I went into the car and sat in the front seat for a long time even though I needed to get my luggage.

I realized I was being incongruent, one person in public and a different person in private. I heard the message loud and clear: “Either curse as loud as you can in every public gathering or don’t swear at all, but stop being a fake.” I realized right on the spot that I needed to a better job of integrating my internal integrity and my external integrity.

I realized I have to work much harder to not swear at all, even when I think I’m all by myself. For the past several weeks I’ve tried to immediately say, “Stop swearing!” whenever I use foul language when I’m by myself. Slowly, steadily, I need to replace that bad habit with a healthier one.

Where can you strengthen your integrity?

If you don’t integrate your internal and external integrity, eventually people will see your true self and wonder what else about you is not trustworthy. That can ruin your career and possibly ruin your business. Acting with integrity is very, very important.

Is there any aspect of your life that is not integrated, where you are acting with one set of values in public and a different set of values in private? That’s not a small question. That one requires some extended thinking time. If you do identify an area in your life the way I found one in my life, I encourage you to focus on it and work to integrate your internal and external integrity.

Maintaining integrity is a matter of personal responsibility, and it’s one of the most important responsibilities we have.

The Image of Integrity

Earlier in this article I said there are three forms of integrity. The first is internal integrity. The second is external integrity. The third is the image of integrity. Knowing that other people are always asking about you, “Can I trust this person?” it’s critically important that you protect your image of integrity. Sometimes people will have their reputation as a person of integrity attacked for no reason. Other people can make up lies and try to denigrate another person. That happens and it is awful, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’m referring to what you do to protect your image of integrity, your reputation as a person of integrity. Here are two examples of how a person who has strong internal and external integrity can play with a ball of fire and ruin his or her reputation.

Imagine you are on a business trip and your direct report is of the opposite gender. You want to discuss a business situation so you decide to invite the person into your hotel room. The two of you come out of the room a few hours later and you’re both laughing. However, three of your colleagues are walking down the hallway to their rooms just as the two of you are leaving your hotel room. You haven’t done anything wrong. You have acted with integrity. But now other people are wondering what is going on. Over the next several months you have lunch and dinner with this direct report, have a few drinks, and meet again several times in a hotel room to discuss business. Even though nothing sexual has ever happened between the two of you, you are leaving your image of integrity up for grabs. Why do that? Why risk your reputation of being a person of integrity?

Imagine you’re responsible for collecting money from your colleagues at work for a big fundraiser for a local not-for-profit organization. So you collect thousands of dollars, you don’t keep any written account for how much each person gave you, you put all the money in your personal bank account and then you write a personal check to the not-for-profit organization. You haven’t done anything wrong. You wrote a check for the exact amount you collected. But by mixing your personal finances with the money from people at your business, you have left other people wondering what is going on.

These stories, or variations of them, happen frequently and cause huge problems inside businesses. Why? Because people start to wonder about the person’s true level of integrity. Protect your image of integrity with the same effort that you work to strengthen your internal and external integrity.

Integrity matters. It matters a lot in the world of business. Keep that in mind as you work to build long-term effective relationships with colleagues, employees, customers, suppliers, and even competitors. Integrity is the critical element if you want to have the opportunity to be a great business leader over the long term.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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