Is this the hill to die on? Have you ever considered that question when faced with a big decision? In leadership positions we can find ourselves in situations where some degree of compromise of our values may be necessary. Working for large organisations we often confront situations where we must match our localised needs to those of a system and this can cause moral conflict. You know those decisions when you have the voices on either side of your shoulder pulling you in opposite directions? There is a choice to be made. You know you have to stand up for what is right and sometimes this can be extremely difficult. You’re at a morale crossroads. Having the courage to do what is right at this moment can have a significant impact on your reputation, it demonstrates very clearly your strength of character and the integrity that you possess.
What is integrity? Personal integrity is thought to be having a consistent set of principles or values that when faced with a challenge or temptation you uphold them regardless of the consequences. Social theorist Larry May, suggests that personal integrity may not be as rigid as this. He is of the view that integrity is not necessarily a core set of beliefs that are unshakable, but more a web of commitments that are interwoven and open to outside influences. In essence integrity is a moral balancing act where we are forced to make judgements. It is this space, that allows us to work successfully as leaders within systems.
We are not born with or without integrity, it’s a behavioural trait that is shaped by our experiences and as such evolves. With this in mind, it is reasonable that when exposed to more information we can become less certain about steadfast rules or moral judgments that we once made, whilst our integrity per se is not compromised the ground on which our judgments are made may shift. For this reason it is important to take time with big decisions and not to react with gut instinct. We must carefully consider all avenues before opening our mouths. Sometimes silence really can be your friend.
Recently I was on a tour of far Western NSW Public Schools. A 1200km road trip with a group of Principal colleagues. We spent 4 days together visiting high performing schools in rural and remote locations. As is the case with educators the conversation never strayed far from the workplace. We spoke about the strength of what we were seeing, the implications for our own schools, we discussed the challenges and successes of our own school communities and the allocation of a finite bucket of resources across an enormous system. What became evident very clearly, was that when push came to shove the personal integrity of each and every one of these leaders could not be compromised. They understood fully that working for a large system sometimes requires a moral compromise. They acknowledged that given the context of each situation they must balance their own moral judgements against the legitimate moral judgements of others. That sometimes the greater good can be a difficult but necessary position to take. They had a clear morale purpose that aligned with their values and beliefs and they would do what was right for students regardless of the fallout. When faced with a choice they would choose students, regardless of context, community, advantage or challenge every day of the week.
There are some simple reasons why living and acting with integrity are so important. When you act with integrity you don’t have to question yourself. You’re doing what at your core you believe is right, you’re weighing up all the information you have and following your moral compass. As a leader the work is often difficult enough without creating a minefield to navigate by cutting corners, making deals and selfishly gathering resources at the detriment of the system. Those we lead will take their cues from us, for this reason it is critical that we set the standard. We must demonstrate that we are dependable and accountable for our actions.
As leaders integrity sets the foundation from which our organisation can flourish. When we act with integrity those we lead feel safe. They know that when the difficult decisions come along their leader will act fairly and that their integrity will not be compromised. These leaders build an environment where people have the opportunity to be open and honest and know that their ideas whilst not always agreed with will be treated with respect and dignity. When we work with integrity we don’t undermine colleagues, we admit to making mistakes, we don’t cast blame and we share credit when it’s due. We are open and honest in our words and actions with no misalignment. In the words of Dr Seuss, “ We say what we mean and we mean what we say”.
In the end your career will not be remembered by the title you hold, the salary you earn or the office you leave. Your career will be remembered by the way you have or have not lead with integrity. In a nutshell you’ll be remembered because you did the right thing even when no-one was watching. In the age of Local Schools, Local Decisions, integrity really is a non-negotiable. In the end those you led will know that when you picked the hill to die on you did it with the utmost integrity.