High-profile scandals and ethical fiascoes perforate today’s society. Commonplace and at every level are unchecked greed, lack of accountability, moral indifference, and cultural decay. Many Americans believe integrity is a vanishing virtue across the spectrum. The times warrant its reaffirmation, perhaps it reinvention, as a cornerstone of our society, as a bedrock principle of the moral compass. Editors of The New York Times once printed, “Without integrity all other virtues turn to sand.”
Few would dispute the notion we need more of it. Everybody wants and expects it from everybody else. No one, however, offers its authentic meaning or states its vital advantages. Instantly recognized in practice, in the abstract this timeless trait of good character remains vague and elusive.
During the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Cyrus Vance resigned his prestigious position as Secretary of State in the Carter Administration. He did so because he could no longer in good faith support President Carter’s policy toward Iran. His actions prompted a journalist to write, “You can put Vance’s name next to the dictionary definition of personal integrity.” Mr. Webster, however, is of limited help in defining the first great virtue.
What is the true definition of integrity? Simply put, it is the capacity to stand by an idea. It is the uncompromising loyalty to one’s judgment, opinions, and values—when faced with temptation to abandon them. Water Lippman, author of the influential book, A Preface to Morals, wrote, “One has virtue who can respond to a situation larger than his mere inclinations; if he can hold himself to an ideal of conduct when it is inconvenient or unprofitable to do so.”
Eugene V. Debs was a social agitator on the American scene during the early decades of the last century. He was opposed to small children working in dangerous coalmines. While demonstrating against it in Ohio, he was arrested, charged with disturbing the peace, and thrown in jail. He received a telegram. It read, “Stand by your principles regardless to the consequences. Your mother and father.” Debs held fast and became a major factor in reform of this country’s child labor laws.
What unseen forces motivate persons of integrity? There are many:
- Personal pride is one;
- A strong streak of individualism is a factor;
- For others it is insistence on independent thought and action;
All, however, are outranked by one imperishable inducement—a burning and determined intent to maintain one’s self- respect.
The twentieth century thinker and writer, Brad Blanchard, declared that self-respect is the intangible that propels the moral engine. For, as he put it, “It is what no one can afford to lose.”
Self-respect is part of the good feelings one has about one’s self. It is the inner certainty one is making the right choices and standing by them. In the dark hours of the Civil War, when the Union was losing one battle after another, and his personal criticism and excoriation were at their height, Abraham Lincoln held a private conference in the White House. He told his Secretary of War, Henry Stanton, “When this terrible war is over, I intend to have one friend left, and he is way down inside of me.”
People of integrity gain admiration and respect. If we pause and reflect, the reasons become clear. Integrity enforces purpose. It generates commitment. It strengthens standards at all levels. It defeats ill-advised compromise. It fosters upright conduct and promotes higher performance—in private life, the professions, and organizations alike.
What are you doing to reinvent and reinforce the fundamental value of integrity in your daily actions, and that of your profession, your team, your organization?