the bedrock

December 2, 2019

illustration by swapnil redkar

As many business examples the world over have proven, the implications of an integrity deficit are humungous. Leaders hold the most responsibility to walk the talk on candor and truthfulness and spread these values within the organization and beyond.

The best take on integrity that I have heard yet is from Oprah Winfrey. Though not a follower of Oprah, her words on integrity stood out for me—“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody is going to know whether you did it or not.” Good leaders never cheat. It is as kosher as it can get. Great leaders do not think of anything other than what is right.

Integrity has unfortunately been redefined and conclusively diluted in modern day business by some of the largest companies and most admired brands around the world. There are many examples—a social media giant out of California, a telecom equipment supplier from China, a transnational car manufacturer out of Japan and Europe, etc. The one common element in all of them is the way their senior-most executives have allowed integrity to be diluted in a calibrated manner. This brings to light the most common phenomenon—the board, in many cases, is not aware of some of the ethical challenges they have within their organization and allow them to flourish. Turning blind to unethical practices indirectly compromises integrity and allows for cultural rot. Which is why it is commonly believed that integrity starts right at the top and must be driven down unflinchingly through the ranks. Let me elaborate on some of the qualities and traits of integrity and its acceptance by good leaders.

integrity is about doing the right thing always independent of any motives

K Shankar is Chief Executive Officer of Feedback Business Consulting.

Leaders with great integrity have this attribute as a natural ability. They may not be the most charismatic or copybook leaders but their integrity is always uncompromised. They do not care about the outcome and any collateral issues. They just stick to what is ethically the most correct thing to do. Integrity for them means doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. And that is what makes success. The best and the most exemplary instances of this is the way the founder and former chair of Infosys dealt with his dynamic global head. The global sales head was driven; a star performer and a definite successor to the corner office, he was asked to leave when he was involved in a sexual harassment case. Infosys Founder Narayana Murthy stood by what he thought was right and did what was the right thing to do. He did not think about Infosys’ prospects, stock price, or any other negative reaction that would come with the decision.

integrity is about walking the talk and keeping promises

Great leaders have a vision and are more studied about what they speak and the promises they make. Leaders keep their promises. Promises are carefully, and probably reluctantly, considered. Once made, they follow through on that promise without fail. When Lee Kuan Yew took over Singapore as the nation’s first Prime Minister in 1965, he made a promise to Singaporeans who were relatively impoverished at the time. Lee’s promise had the following core elements:

  • Singapore will make a living against neighbors who have more natural resources, human resources, and bigger space.
  • Singapore will differentiate based on clean systems; adherence to rule of the law and decisiveness.
  • Singapore will become reliable and credible to investors, will have world-class infrastructure, world-class support staff educated in English, state of the art infrastructure, et al.

Not only did Lee deliver, he took Singapore to another level. Singapore’s per capita GDP was about $400 a year in 1965. Today, Singapore has a per capita GDP of about $55,000! This is a clear case of under-promise and over-deliver!

Great leaders have a vision and are more studied about what they speak and the promises they make. Leaders keep their promises. Promises are carefully, and probably reluctantly, considered. Once made, they follow through on that promise without fail.

truth the cornerstone of leaders with high integrity

Truth is the founding fundamental of leaders with high integrity. It is about seeing the world as it really is and not as everyone wishes it to be. It is the most sacrosanct principle of leadership and depends on integrity because it demands absolute honesty. Many organizations fail because they do not follow the reality principle. Integrity means speaking the truth even if truth is ugly and incomprehensible. The GST council in India and its vendors believe that the GST process of filing returns is the best that can be provided. It is the other paradigm. It is complex and time consuming. The leaders concerned wish to believe what they want it to be!
Jack Welch called it candor. He believed that if a leader is afraid of candor, then he/she does not have the guts to be an effective leader. The leader will end up being surrounded by yes people who will say what you want to hear instead of saying the truth.

In 2017, Shareholders accused Toshiba management of having an entrenched culture of secrecy and glaring failures in oversight as they cast doubt over the company’s revival plan a day after its US nuclear unit filed for bankruptcy protection. An angry shareholder shouted that there was a chronic culture of lying in Toshiba and went on to say that a company like Toshiba could not be trusted! This inspite Toshiba claiming that the worst was behind it after the Westinghouse episode.

Integrity and trust have a lasting RoI for a leader, a board, and a brand. Noncompliance of integrity is like an unseen risk. When it strikes it can shake the foundation of an organization. Cases of Enron, Kingfisher Airlines, BP, to name a few, come to mind.

Truth is the founding fundamental of leaders with high integrity. It is about seeing the world as it really is and not as everyone wishes it to be.

integrity is interconnected

Integrity cannot be viewed in isolation. It transmits from the board to leadership, operating structures, products and services, brand, and finally, the last mile to customer. It can rub off on the customers too. Great leaders and organizations do not allow for the link to break at any stage. It will backfire and can be disastrous.

A good example of the broken link came to light during the Johnson & Johnson hip replacement systems issue. Health Ministry in India, like other places around the world, indicted Johnson & Johnson for suppressing key facts on the harmful effects of the company’s faulty hip replacement systems that were withdrawn globally after complications required many patients to undergo revision surgery.

J&J allowed for the link to break, resulting in serious image and capital loss.

integrity is about giving credit where it is due

The most dreadful feeling a subordinate or group of subordinates get is when the leader claims credit for something one of their subordinates had done. This can be permanently damaging. Credits and recognition are critical elements around which leadership integrity is built. A CEO is just a chief enabling officer. He should create an ecosystem based on the foundations of integrity in which leaders will perform and realise their potential. It will help create an entire pyramid of workforce that can be confident that the leaders will not steal their cheese! This has been at the heart of successful companies like Google, Microsoft, HCL, etc. All these companies’ leaders put employees ahead of themselves and gave recognition when due.

It is now becoming increasingly clear that we are entering a new phase in the business world where ethics, values, and integrity are priorities for customers and employees alike. With technology becoming an immense enabler across sections of economy, for any business to compete, the values statement which were meant for the notice boards and were admired for creative writing are being taken more seriously and are being implemented in a more meaningful and practical way.

With technology becoming an immense enabler across sections of economy, for any business to compete, the values statement which were meant for the notice boards and were admired for creative writing are being taken more seriously and are being implemented in a more meaningful and practical way.

Finally, integrity always comes from integrity of purpose. I think the role of integrity in business and life cannot get more pristine than that!