Friday, April 2, 2010

A Tale of Integrity

When I was a West Point cadet, integrity was embodied in the Cadet Honor Code, which stated, “A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.” Honor violations were reported by fellow cadets and thoroughly investigated. Cadets found guilty were dismissed immediately. I had a classmate who broke the rules by getting married while he was a cadet, a fact which he kept secret. The problem was, he signed a statement every time he returned from leave declaring that he wasn’t married. Eventually, this lie bothered him so much that he turned himself in the day before graduation. It was an honorable thing to do, but he wasn't allowed to graduate or to be commissioned as a second lieutenant.

But that didn't stop him from serving. He joined the Army and earned a commission through Officer Candidate School (OCS). He became a helicopter pilot, but he was killed soon afterward in Vietnam when his aircraft was shot down. I grieved his death along with more than 30 of my classmates who paid the ultimate price there.

“Honor” and “integrity” are common terms, but I’ve found that most people have a vague understanding of them. For example, I hear the terms honesty and integrity being used interchangeably. Sure, they’re closely related, but to me they’re two different things. Honesty has to do with communicating the truth—what you say. Integrity has to do with living the truth—what you do.

So I believe it’s important to define “integrity.” The more clearly you understand what it is, the more likely you’ll be to act honorably and the less tolerant you’ll be of people who act dishonorably. 

I’ll start by putting my working definition on the table:  Integrity is doing what you’ve led others to believe that you’ll do. 

This definition applies whether you sign a written contract, make a verbal promise, or present yourself to others as someone who lives according to your core values or a recognized code of ethics. It applies whether your actions are consciously planned or triggered by impulse or emotion. 

I think of integrity as a personal strength because doing the right thing often means doing the hard thing. It may be inconvenient or difficult to keep your promise. You may be tempted to do something else.

Here’s a question for you. What would you do if no one was looking? Would you do the right thing even if you knew for sure that no one would ever know the difference? 

Say you’re at a convenience store and you buy a lottery ticket for a dollar. You hand the clerk a $10 bill. Distracted by her conversation with the other clerk, she puts your money in the register, gives you the ticket and then counts out $19 in change. Clearly, the honorable thing is to point out her error and get the correct change. But many people would rationalize that no one is harmed by the error and that it’s a bit of luck that balances out all those past lottery losses.

Integrity hangs in the balance.  

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .


Johannes said...

Hi Denny,

This situation presented to me about a year ago. My son of 4½yrs old was with me in a small shop. We were in one of only 2 aisles, halfway down. I noticed a ZAR10 note (1USD=ZAR7.2) on the middle shelf. I don't know if my son saw it. I picked up the note, almost automatically - knowing I have to or want to do something with it, I felt odd not knowing easily what to do, and knowing I have to do it quickly aka in the moment. I said to my son: "Hey, look here, someone left his ZAR10 on the shelf. Let’s give it to the shop owner. If that person comes in search of it, the shop owner would be able to return it to him" We walked over to the till. Handing it over, I yet again felt fumbled, and said something along the same lines. We returned to shopping, and when leaving, I could replay the event with my son, including him in the reasoning. I thought about the event a few times after this.

I later listened to the biography of Warren Buffet (audio book) where the following situation was conveyed. Buffet was at a conference, and a side attraction was golf, with a hole-in one opportunity offered to all with a significant prize (i.e. a new car, or large money prize.) Someone questioned Buffet why he does not try his luck on this. The book conveys his pause and clear response that he would rather not risk corrupting his judgment by the possible luck in this activity. This rang true to me.
[Warren Buffet Speaks by Janet Lowe]

It happened again a few months later, I was in the 1 end of the video shop, when I noticed 3 x ZAR20 notes on the floor, possibly where one got up from a computer renting an internet connection. With no hesitation I knew what I intended in doing, it was still slightly awkward. Two high school kids were managing the shop. My son was browsing videos; I walked up and handed the money to one of the kids managing the shop, saying in a simple clear communication that someone probably dropped this, handed the money over, and went on to finish renting videos. When leaving the shop I could relay / reinforce the moral to my son and 14 yo daughter.

I believe the fumbled feeling in both events were the "muscle memory" principle of your earlier post ( Being a bit confused, not being clear, mind racing.

I think I have now created the muscle memory, and will not feel odd/fumbled next time, because I have been able to play out the situation in its most simple and honest communication. I never seeked to follow-up or get assurance of what will happen with the money further on, this is not the point. I have thought about it some more, because I believe in the good of people, but also that everybody is challenged everyday of their life, and my action can provide opportunity to the next person to develop himself.

I think what has also contributed to the way these situations played out was a belief I hold to seek out understanding of myself, situations and others, an acceptance that there are many aspects to life, and we generally have a filtered / partial view of life, and that we should seek out / drill down in situations provided to diversify our observations, rather than consolidate it in order to get understanding and acceptance of life.

Thanks Denny.

Unknown said...

Johannes, these are wonderful tales of integrity. And you make a terrific point, that we become people of integrity by exercising integrity. It gets easier every time we do it.

Unknown said...

Hi Denny,

Honestly is easy but integrity is hard. You have to overcome your innermost desires and do what is right.

And the consequences can be painful.