Monday, January 17, 2011

Integrity - the true sign of Leadership

There are two qualities I seek in all the employees I hire.  One is high self-motivation (I'll write on this later), the other is Integrity.  You might think that this a no-brainer, and some of you just said, "of course." However, I have found that this characteristic is not universal among employees.

Many people claim to be ethical, even honest, but being upright and a person of integrity is more than being ethical.  Integrity requires a level of consistency that is often at odds with business today. Integrity requires that a leader not make exceptions to rules and expectations even in the face of significant arguments to the contrary.  Gerstner, in his book recounting the IBM turn-around has much to say about the kinds of executives he sought and challenges to integrity.  Examples included arguments to compensate above established parameters in order to 'keep an employee', or requests to pay unearned bonuses to 'maintain morale'.  These are often viewed as ethical and reasonable departures from stated policy.  Gerstner considers them an integrity issue.  His conclusion is that companies which tolerate lapses in integrity are destined to fail.

Nehemiah faced his own issues with Integrity in the power structure within Jerusalem (Neh. 5) The officials were loaning money to those who were in need and struggling.  The people were struggling due to famine, a poor economy due to a lack of safety, high unemployment, and loss of earning power due to the focus on building the wall. When people couldn't pay, these lenders began to foreclose.  Those suffering included many who were working on the wall.  There was a huge uproar and Nehemiah knew he had to do something.  What is amazing is that the lenders certainly had 'every right' to loan, charge interest, and foreclose.  It was their money to do with as they wished.  Today, many would claim the same right.

However, the Mosaic Law, which had been ignored for many years, forbid the children of Israel from charging one another interest.  Not only that but, Nehemiah and his team were loaning money at no interest, feeding many daily, and attempting to establish a healthy economic environment by improving the safety and well-being of those within Jerusalem.
 
What the officials were doing was not 'illegal' under Babylonian law, and we might even say they were enterprising, responsible businessmen.  We might even be tempted to say they were engaged in honorable activities, even helping sustain the local economy.   However, what they were doing was not an example of integrity.  They loaned to those who couldn't pay.  They foreclosed without care for their brothers.  They sought to benefit from the improvements in Jerusalem without personally contributing to the outcome.

In contrast stood Nehemiah.  Not only was he supporting many who were in need, and loaning without interest, but Nehemiah, sought not personal gain as Leader in Jerusalem.  That's not to say he didn't desire to be paid, desire the respect of others, or seek success.  As governor, Nehemiah received a salary, money for his expenses, and had the right to tax the citizens of Jerusalem.  His predecessors not only spent all their allotted expense budget on themselves, but taxed the people to line their own pockets.

When push came to shove, only a man of integrity could appeal to the wealthy and challenge them to change their ways.  He points to the Law.  He points to the example of the men who came with him from Babylon.  His authority, his power, came not solely from his position, in fact he never threatened. He never ordered, he appealed.  It was Nehemiah's integrity that won the day.

With the observation of MLK, Jr.'s birthday, we have one more example of how integrity in leadership has the power to reform a nation.  You, too, can impact your family, community, and workplace by being a person of integrity.

jvt