Integrity is perhaps one of the least understood human values in society and yet it is the one that people in public life most frequently are questioned, scrutinised and criticised in and by the media.
In 1998, when my coach Christine McDougall asked me to write a brief personal biography, amongst other points I wrote, “My vision is to change the fabric of society and for people to live a life in integrity.” I was astonished by what I had written because at that time I had no idea what integrity meant or how I would realise my vision, yet deep down I knew I would.
Over the years I fully grasped the significance of integrity and how it positively shapes or weakens ones character and place in the world. How it either builds or erodes our self-esteem and self-respect – the essence of who we are -- with or without our conscious awareness.
When engineers say a building has structural integrity, they mean that the building has a hidden life, a strong foundation that gives the whole building integrity and strength.
We often think integrity is grounded in the professional realm and seek to perpetuate a strong ethical persona in front of those who only know us on a professional level. However, integrity is rooted deep within us, within our private world. It is not rooted in our professional life, personal world of interpersonal relationships, or in the public life. It is only revealed there.
I love Cherie Carter Scott’s simple yet powerful definition of integrity. In her book “If Success Is A Game, These Are The Rules,” she says, “Integrity is doing the right thing, especially when no one is watching. “ While this definition is simple it also raises the questions, “What is the right thing to do and by whose definition?”
Before answering these questions I want to underscore that “Integrity” is personal. What I perceive to be in integrity, you may not, and vice versa. A person is either in integrity or is not. There are no degrees of integrity and yet we may operate at different levels of integrity. It is my choice whether to work in a company or partnership, or do business with someone that doesn’t share my level of integrity. Naturally, this decision comes at a cost. It usually shows up as a high level of stress and discontent. It is not my right to criticise another person’s level of integrity. And here lies the dilemma and struggle that the majority of people experience.
“Maintaining integrity is one of the highest lessons to learn in terms of human evolution,” says Cheri Carter Scott. “It is a lesson that often comes up when you succeed, for it is then that you might be called upon to compromise your values in order to proceed. Integrity demands that you remember who you are in the light of your success and honour that person."
To be true to one’s integrity takes a quantum leap because it involves being strong inside, resisting any temptations and taking responsibility for our decisions and choices. If I choose to stay within a company or professional realm that is not in line with my level of integrity, I need to take responsibility for that choice and pay the price. I do not have the right to blame anyone else for what happens or doesn’t happen in my life as a result of my choice. At the same time I also owe the company or professional group, I chose to associate myself with, to be a fully contributing member.
Coming back to the questions, “What is the right thing to do and by whose definition?” Each of us knows deep down what is the right thing to do. All we need is to listen to our inner voice. So first and foremost integrity is about doing what we know to be the right thing, irrespective of the presence or absence of the law. Secondly, it is about observing legal and ethical standards.
Integrity is a choice and a way of life. It creates the solid foundation for a peaceful inner life in a world of chaos, uncertainty and accelerated change.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross expresses the essence of integrity in the most profound way
"People are like stained glass windows: they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within."
What is your inner voice telling you about your integrity? If you are ignoring the message, what does it cost you daily – physically, emotionally, spiritually and economically – to ignore your truth?
Elisabeth Gortschacher ©2015 All Rights Reserved