3 Danger Signals That Your Integrity Is at Risk

Posted 06.01.2011

Some recent news stories, one in particular, have caused me to pull out my dictionary to look up the word “integrity.” (I like to use the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language because it offers the roots of the words all to the way back to the Indo-European roots.)  The primary definition of integrity is steadfast adherence to a moral or ethical code. The Latin root is integer which, in this context, means whole and complete.

Tressel So, if you have integrity, it means your approach to life is integrated. Everything is whole. By that definition, the recently resigned coach of the Ohio State University football team, Jim Tressel,  doesn’t have it.  As a thoroughly reported and sourced article in the current issue of Sports Illustrated points out, Tressel has at least an eight year record of willfully ignoring violations of rules in which Ohio State boosters gave his players sweet deals on cars, free tattoos, marijuana and other favors in exchange for football memorabilia and the opportunity to hang out with them.  When the story came to a head a few months ago, Tressel let his players take the fall and denied any prior knowledge but documents now show that he knew and tried to cover it up.

None of this is what anyone expected from a coach known for his button down, sweater vest demeanor. In addition to his winning record and national championship title, Tressel was admired by many for conducting pre-game quiet times with his team to study humility and other virtues. He kept a prayer request box on his desk and was praised by retired NFL coach Tony Dungy for his integrity.

It’s not my intent to pick on an easy target. My point is that the cumulative pressure to win — whether it’s coming from your fans, your shareholders or yourself — can make it is easy to compromise your integrity. The person you thought you were or want to be can get buried by the decisions you make that don’t square with that ideal. Using the Tressel story as a case study, here are three danger signals that should tell you you’re putting your integrity as a leader at risk:

  • You start looking the other way.  The idea that ignorance is bliss doesn’t square with being a person of integrity. You need to look for the truth and act on it.
  • You think about covering up mistakes.  You’ve no doubt  heard the phrase, “The cover up is worse than the crime.”  The instinct to cover something up is a sure sign that your integrity is at risk.
  • You blame others.  Leaders are accountable for the systems that encourage their team members to behave either positively or negatively. Those systems create the culture of the organization.  If the culture is one of corruption, that’s on the leader. If you start blaming others for repeated bad behavior in your organization, you’re probably not being honest with yourself about your role in creating the culture.

If you’re a sports fan (even if you’re not), what leadership lessons do you see in the Tressel story?  What ideas do you have about how leaders can guard their integrity?