Understanding integrity

Integrity: Constantly acting and behaving in a manner consistent with one’s values.

That is my definition of perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused words linked to morality. The point here is that integrity is not a synonym for morality or honesty. There are words for that. This is about how we behave. It is easy to label a person as honest, or even as dishonest. But for said person to act with integrity, it has to be with respect to their values, regardless of whether you believe those values to be positive or negative.

So why is integrity deemed to be such a difficult quality to attain? It has to do with constantly acting in a manner consistent with your values. It is too easy to take shortcuts and ignore your values. In business, at work, in the corporate world, how many times have we remained silent in the face of action that violates our values, all for fear of the repercussions? When we say corporate governance failed, what we mean is that integrity failed.

Closely linked to the concept of integrity, and the main reason that people can possess the quality of integrity, is courage. I believe that courage is also misunderstood. I’ll explain. In January 2008 I was in a board cum shareholder meeting for a project that I had founded and which involved some rich and influential parties. Some of those parties had plotted together to effectively hijack my project. This included shouting at me and threatening me. I held my ground. At one point a representative of one of the rich and influential parties threatened me: “You know that you will never be able to do business in this country again.” My response? “If this is how you do business, why would I want to do business here again?”

I was asked later why I stood up to a roster of people who would win against me. I was asked why I didn’t understand that I couldn’t win. I was told that if I wanted to be successful then I needed to only fight when I knew that I could win. I was told that I was stupid for doing the former and would be smart to do the latter. My answer was simple, I gave the questioners my definition for two other important qualities.

Cowardice: Fighting only when you know that you can win.

Incidentally, the difference between a coward and a bully is that a coward reacts, running away from fights he is not sure of winning, whilst a bully is proactive in picking fights that he is confident that he can win. My other definition is:

Courage: Fighting for what is right regardless of the personal price that you pay.

As you can see, courage is part and parcel of integrity. You cannot have the quality of integrity without being ready to fight for what is right regardless of the price you pay. This is, in the end, why bad things happen, why corporate governance fails, why financial fraud happens. Employees prioritise keeping their jobs, and therefore their salaries, over doing the right thing.

As an aside, the result of the January 2008 standoff led, in the end, to an amicable financial resolution. The most powerful stakeholder respected my actions and my subsequent attempts at resolution. The instigator was let go at the end of his fixed term contract. Not all such situations end this way, people with integrity will have to pay a price sooner or later. But we should give thanks for such people, for without them, who would speak for those who cannot or will not speak for themselves? The bank clients thrown in jail over security cheques? The families homeless due to fraud? There will always be our legal system to resolve these issues equitably. But why allow people to go through this in the first place?

And that is the point. Integrity is not about getting what you want. It is about supporting the community. Without corporate governance, and the integrity to act in a manner consistent with such values, then regardless of whether you are personally harmed, the business community suffers. One of the greatest personalities in history sums it up succinctly:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.


  1. Sun Tzu, one of the most famous military strategist of all time, didn’t advocate going into battle no matter what:

    “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

    A while ago, I was in a situation that resembled a bit the one that you described, it’s just that it wasn’t a business meeting but a court hearing held by a (throughout corrupted) public prosecutor. Am I a coward for having waved a white flag in a situation like that? I don’t think so.

    You are sliding towards a mistake to put the equals sign between being coward and being pragmatic (realistic, reasonable).

    Apart from that, (yet another) interesting reading.

    It’s just that you left the readers wonder – were you actually able to do business in that country again 🙂

    1. Yes I did do business again, with the very party that threatened I wouldn’t. To answer your main question, I did indeed make an implicit assumption in the article that I should have made explicit. There is a difference between staying quiet to benefit personally, which is what I am talking about, versus remaining quiet to avoid harm, which is your point. Both valid, both consistent.

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