The Critical Importance of Integrity

ă 1998 by William A. Cohen

All rights reserved, but may be quoted or reproduced with attribution.

This article appeared first in  Canadian Manager  March, 1999


I spent almost eight years researching and interviewing more than 200 combat leaders who went on to highly successful careers in industry, including 62 generals and admirals.

Why combat leadership? Years ago Peter F. Drucker, perhaps the foremost management thinker of our time, wrote that the first systematic book on leadership was written more than two thousand years ago by Xenophon, and yet it was still the best. Xenophon was a Grecian general, and he wrote about combat leadership.

I am not recommending war. Few who have been in war would describe it as other than horrible. However, battle requires a very high state of leadership and it represents a worse case condition. Not only is there great risk and uncertainty, but also "working conditions" are horrible. Most followers and leaders would rather be somewhere else. If leadership under these conditions can be mastered and you apply these lessons elsewhere, you can lead anywhere and other any conditions.

After my initial research, I personally spoke with dozens of other highly successful top corporate leaders. Combat leaders who had gone on to successful careers in industry and other organizations and other top corporate leaders agreed that integrity is the most significant factor in successful leadership, in or out of the military.

Seven thousand years of recorded history confirmed this judgment. There are numerous historical examples. Benjamin Franklin, who was a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia, concluded that through his integrity and lack of dogmatic expression he led his fellow citizens despite the fact that he was "a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language."

One hundred and fifty years later, Leonard Roberts became CEO of Arby’s, the fast food restaurant chain when it was losing money. He made Arby's profitable, but then resigned from the board of directors to which he had been appointed when Arby’s owner threatened to withhold bonuses for Robert’s staff, and not to give promised help to Arby’s franchisees in order to further increase profits. In retaliation for his stand, Arby’s owner fired Roberts.

Roberts went right from the frying pan and into the fire. He was hired as CEO of another restaurant chain. This time, it was  Shoney’s. . To his dismay, he found that Shoney’s was the subject of the largest racial discrimination suit in history. And the suit was well deserved! Shoney’s owner not only would not hire African-Americans, but also he fired any restaurant manager who did. Roberts promised that the suit would be settled fairly. Shoney’s owner agreed to pay up and settle, but only if Roberts would resign afterwards. Said Roberts, “My stand on integrity was getting a little hard on my wife and kids. However, I knew it had to be done. There was no other way.” Ultimately, Roberts became CEO of Radio Shack, and a year after that, CEO of Tandy’s, which owns Radio Shack. Not long ago, Brandweek magazine named him Retailer of the Year.

Today, Roberts says, “You cannot fake it. You must stand up for what is right regardless. You cannot maintain your integrity 90 percent and be a leader. It’s got to be 100 percent.”

What exactly is this quality which is so universally prized among leaders? Integrity means adherence to a set of values which incorporates honesty and freedom from deception. But it is more than honesty. It means doing the right thing regardless of circumstances or benefits to the leader or the organization. It means doing the right thing even if no one is looking.

Here’s an example of what I am talking about.  I read this story first in a book by Retired Major General Perry M. Smith. He knows something about integrity. He’s the consultant that resigned his well-paying job with CNN. In doing so, he shined a spotlight on CNN and forced the giant network to retract its erroneous and biased story claiming that the American military’s used gas to kill its own men in Vietnam. He lost a lot of income, but he did the right thing. But, back to Babe Zaharias.

Zaharias was a champion amateur golfer in the 1932 Olympics, and later a professional golfer. On one occasion she penalized herself two strokes when she accidentally played the wrong ball. “Why did you do it?” asked a friend. “No one saw you. No one would have known the difference.”  “I would have known,” replied Babe Zacharias, a champion of integrity.

Maintaining absolute integrity is the bottom line rule for any leader if they want their subordinates to follow them during all conditions. You can develop your integrity if you will:

  1. Keep your word. If you say something, make certain it is the exact truth.
  2. Choose the harder right over the easier wrong. There are times when you are faced with choices of right or wrong. No matter what your boss matter what the stockholders matter if you will lose your job...choose the right.
  3. Guard your principles. This means that you must be trustworthy and principled. This is a part of maintaining your integrity as well.

  4. Do the right thing. When you are in a situation that you stand to lose a lot by stating the complete truth, that is exactly the time to do the right thing. When you treat others with respect, they will treat you with respect as well.

General Alexander Haig, Jr. was once Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and later Secretary of State under President Reagan. He has been a leader in peace and war and government and industry. He has this to say: “In an era marked by at least the appearance of questionable integrity and moral courage by many contemporary leaders, the demonstration of absolute integrity by a leader is the most important principle that any leader must follow.”



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