Character and Integrity rarely grow when everything in life goes our way. Instead it is our response to life’s challenges that forges our character and spotlights our integrity. I used both character and integrity here because the need for both shows up in our lives every day. They are not the same thing. While the words are often used interchangeably, knowing and living the difference can have a powerful effect on how we show up every day and ultimately how we lead.
Think about it. What happens to your character when things don’t go as planned?” How do you react when the pressure is on, when you have to perform or when you feel you are under attack? Have you ever “cut a corner” on a project, or justified a behavior because everyone else does it? Your responses to these situations in life are what refines and defines your character and spotlights your integrity.
The word integrity evolved from the Latin word integer, meaning whole or complete. Used in this context, integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” we have, deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency. It literally means having “wholeness,” just as an integer is a “whole number” with no fractional parts. Integrity has to do with what or how you do things. Having integrity means having excellence in what you do and doing the right thing in a reliable way.
Integrity is a trait that we admire. In fact, if you look at the mission, vision, or values statements that corporations post on their websites, you’ll notice that many companies include a statement about integrity. Look at the website of the organization in which you work. Is the word integrity in there somewhere?
While integrity is important, it is not the same as character. What is the difference? There are millions of people all over the world who are excellent in what they do, and even do great things. They show integrity, but they may or may not have character. Character is who you are. It defines you and guides your actions, hopefully in a positive way. A person of character is a person who not only lives right in front of other people, but lives right when no one else is looking.
Integrity focuses on the outward appearance; my actions and my works represent who I am. Think again of the mission, vision or values statements- all outward focused. Integrity is very important but the reality is that all of us face integrity-based choices regularly. Do we tell customers everything about our products? Do we reveal everything during due diligence? Is it acceptable to hide certain aspects of our background in a resume? What’s considered a legitimate expense on a business trip? How much of what you call billable time is really devoted to a client? How honest should you be when giving feedback to your boss or subordinate? None of these situations has clear answers. No corporate policy covers every situation. The result is that no matter what choice we make, we convince ourselves that our choice was made with integrity. But were these decisions of “good character?”
Character focuses on the inward condition. The word is derived from the ancient Greek word “charaktêr,” meaning an impression in a coin. It later became a term used to describe how we differentiated one thing from another, ultimately coming to represent the qualities that define and differentiate a person. Character means that who I am determines what I do. It is often said that building character is a project that is never complete.
Character is not situational and building character takes time — carving out an unwavering ethical and moral strength of the individual, as well as attributes and abilities that will ultimately correspond to life choices. If we pursue and build character, integrity will be a natural byproduct of the way we live. Simply put, if I am a person of character then I will naturally be a person of integrity. Integrity-based choices will become easier to navigate. Abraham Lincoln had this view of character when he said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
So, how do you react when things don’t go as planned? When you are under fire? When the pressure is on to perform or an unclear corporate policy is your only guide? I challenge you to build your character thought by thought and action by action, putting a spotlight on your integrity. This is a bright light that can illuminate you as a person and shine at all levels of your organization – a beacon of ethical leadership others will seek to emulate.
What will you do today to make this happen?