Lessons in Integrity from Madoff?

Posted 11.02.2011

This is one of those “learn by doing the opposite” kinds of posts.  It’s inspired by a few New York Times stories earlier this week on a new book that the surviving son of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff has released.  I don’t intend to read the book but I noted with interest that the son had talked his mother, Ruth Madoff, into giving some interviews to promote it.  If you can get past the outrage that Bernie Madoff induces, there were some poignant and instructive lessons about integrity in what his wife had to say.

Apart from the huge amount of money he stole from his clients, I think the biggest source of outrage with Madoff is the way he presented himself as a pillar of the philanthropic and financial communities when, in fact, he was running a criminal enterprise.  In her interviews, it seems that Ruth Madoff was as fooled by her husband’s double life as just about everyone else was.   She sounds devastated that the man she thought she was married to was not that man at all.

In thinking about how Madoff scammed everyone who was closest to him including his wife, the word integrity kept coming to my mind. As I’ve noted here before, the first definition of the word integrity in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is “Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code.”  In a case like Madoff’s it goes without saying that, by definition, integrity was not in the picture.  The third definition of the word offers a more nuanced guidepost for those of us who are not inclined to engineer a massive financial fraud.  Here it is:  “The quality or condition of being whole or undivided, completeness.”  The definition goes on to explain that the root of the word is the Latin word integritas.  The word, integrate, has the same root.  The primary definition for that word is “To make into a whole by bringing all parts together. To unify.”

So, all of that leads me to this conclusion.  A life lived with integrity is one that is integrated.  It’s one in which everything hangs together and there is internal consistency.  Sure, integrity is about honesty and ethics, but it’s more than that.  It’s about living, leading and presenting yourself so that your actions in one domain are integrated with what you think, do and say in other domains.  When you start to notice that your actions across domains are not integrated or unified that’s a sign that your integrity is at risk.

I’m pretty sure that that wasn’t much of a concern to Bernie Madoff.  He made a conscious decision to go in the other direction.  For the majority of us, though, challenges to our integrity can sneak up on us.  Regularly stepping back to assess your level of integration can be a useful way to stay true to yourself and guard your integrity.

What do you do to ensure that you live up to your goals around integrity?