Friday, January 30, 2009

Leadership 101: Integrity is a Coin You Can’t Afford to Spend

Two of the worst leadership failures I’ve seen both involved me as the recipient of dishonest, duplicitous actions by leaders while I was in the Air Force. (Bear with me: there are some military positions, ranks, and terms in this post…)

Six months into my first stint in the Air Force I got in some trouble because I didn’t take responsibility in the first leadership role I’d been entrusted with. Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you the whole story.

My First Sergeant [1] repeatedly ensured me he was supporting a verbal reprimand for me, not something more serious. After the dust had settled I looked over the paperwork for the mess and found, in extremely light, tiny handwriting, the First Sergeant’s recommendations to my Commanding Officer (CO): a much more severe punishment which would have resulted in a loss of rank and fines.

18 years old, six months into my first stint in the service, and this two-faced, lying SOB is what I’m being shown as an example of a leader? I still have a copy of that paperwork around somewhere. It’s been 26 years, and I still get pissed every time I run across that.

Years later I had an extremely tense situation involving one of my subordinates. Our Chief Enlisted Advisor (CEA [2]) gave me verbal orders which I vehemently disagreed with because they put me in a completely untenable position. I repeated the CEA’s orders to ensure I understood things correctly, then respectfully let him know my objections. “Carry on” or something similar was the response. I left that man’s office, went and got my superior officer, explained the situation, then returned to the CEA’s office with my Major in tow.

“I never said anything like that” was the CEA’s response when confronted with the situation. An outright lie to my face, and he knew it because I remember him being unable to look me in the eye. I served with that CEA in that unit for several more years, then again in another unit later on in my career. I also ran in to him several times after I left the service. Not once after that initial incident did I ever give him anything more than the bare minimum of courtesy required by regulation. He didn’t deserve it, and he never even remotely attempted to earn back my trust. Fail Whale, to use the vernacular.

Integrity is absolutely critical to who you are as a person. Not a developer, not a professional, not a leader, but as a person. Small transgressions with your friends, peers, customers, or team members will dig you into a big hole. Moderate transgressions leave you at the bottom of a huge crater. Large transgressions are the equivalent of the Grand Canyon, and you’ll likely never, ever recover.

In the past I’ve dug some holes through sheer stupidity or lack of courage, and it took me a lot of hard work to recover. That time and pain of that recovery effort is something I can look back on now and say “Jackass! You could have avoided all that if you’d had the stones to do the right thing.” Thankfully Darwinism gave me a pass and I’ve survived after learning some hard lessons.

I can’t emphasize this enough: Integrity is the foundation of nearly everything I’ve written about so far: communication, respect, responsibility. All my examples were negative ones because I wanted to show the impact of getting it wrong. Take the magnitude of those examples’ failures, flip them over, and hopefully you’ll understand the upside of being adamant about protecting your integrity.

You earn your integrity very slowly over a long period of time by demonstrating your honesty and trustworthiness. You spend it quickly with white lies, hypocrisy, and uneven handedness in how you treat those around you. Big lies drain your entire account in an instant.

Integrity’s a coin you need to hold near and dear to your heart. You can’t ever, EVER afford to spend it.

[1] First Sergeant: a senior enlisted person responsible for conduct and performance of all enlisted personnel in a unit.

[2] Chief Enlisted Advisor: somewhat like a First Sergeant, but generally responsible for a smaller group of enlisted personnel in a unit.

Update: Find links to this series of posts here.

1 comment:

Marty Adams said...

Great post! I couldn't agree more about the importance of integrity.

I had similar experiences in the Army and in civilian life. Even if you are in a position of responsibility, you can't really lead unless your team trusts you.

Thanks Jim!

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