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Friday, March 5, 2010

Integrity in Leadership and Life

What does "integrity" mean to you? Find a reliable and preferably large dictionary and read the full definition.  Read slowly.  Absorb each listed application of meaning.  I personally love the Oxford English Dictionary, but this can be too academic, as well as difficult to find.  Then look through the Internet to see what is said about "integrity" there and compare what you see.

Integrity is a very popular concept today.  I do not hear its appearance in common conversation.  I do not read the word much in written articles.  If it is used, it seems mostly to be useful for citing its absence, reflected by some piece of news about someone's behaviors.  "He has no integrity" or something like that seems most common.

If you are an engineer or builder, the word "integrity" carries a sense of strength, coherence, durability.  Perhaps this is the reason the word seems out of fashion today when it comes to personal character.  Perhaps too many people do not want to reflect much on how strong their character is, how their values cohere, or what durable they are apt to be under pressure.  They are willing to use "integrity" in a negative context--as a measuring rod for something someone does not have--but not many seem interested in using this word as a positive incentive for personal growth.

When I was a boy, a teen, I am unsure of how much this word was in my vocabulary or in my mental furniture.  I do know that one of the elements of what I understand integrity to be, truthfulness, was very important to me.  My father who, thank God, still is alive and both mentally and physically healthy used to drive home the importance of being truthful.  So I grew up hearing not only this lesson, but seeing it lived out in two honest and truthful parents.

It seems to me that integrity requires fundamental truthfulness to exist and grow in us.  I once heard an old preacher, named Hank Eason, tell me, "As long as you are green, you are growing, but when you get ripe, you get rotten."  He was talking about humility, openness to change, willingness to learn.  As as long as those things were present, he implied, there was hope for continued growth in all areas of life:  thinking, emoting, behaving, believing.  But his funny saying implied that a person is in real peril when he or she believes he has "arrived" and has not much, or nothing, to learn from other people.  That person essentially has shut himself or herself off from the prospect of correction, and the pleasures of learning how to become a better person.

In my life and, in my historical studies, I have seen persons who have what I might call "perverse integrity."  There is a coherence, a consistency, in what they believe, think, emote, and do.  They have a "system" or "world view" out of which they act.  When they get up in the morning, they do not turn on the television or read the paper to "figure out who they are."  They know who they are.  Yet to have an assured, clear, comprehensive view of oneself and one's place in the world does NOT mean that view is correct.  You can have a completely coherent, consistent, integrated view of identify, life, and the world, but be wrong and be harmful to others.

I was reading this morning Elie Wiesel's famous little book, Night.  For those readers who do not know him, this small but powerful text narrates in short but traumatic prose how he, as a young Hungarian Jew, his family, and his community, lived and died under Nazi oppression, deportation, and terror.  As I write about "integrity," I think of the millions of highly intelligent Germans who were completely persuaded that what they were doing was right, good, and necessary.  Reader, if you are familiar with world history, if you are familiar with some other nation's history, can you recite your own version of a genocidal group deeply convinced of their own rightness?

One of the problems with truthfulness is that it always returns home to point its bony, pointed finger at us.  So when I talk about illustrations of how "integrity can be perverse," let me cite briefly my own nation, the United States.  My European ancestors also oppressed, deported, terrorized, and exterminated millions of Native Americans as "subhuman savages and barbarians."  From blankets infected with smallpox, to rum, to bullets, to forced marches, to destruction of food sources, to rigged laws, treaties, and judgments in courts of law, the histories of what happened are clear.

So both individuals and groups can be convinced they have "integrity" yet be completely wrong.  And, as I already have said, there are apparently many individuals who do not seem much to care about thinking on what personal integrity might mean.  I know I wish I heard many more voices around me talking about the issue of integrity, and calling me to reflect on my own integrity.

Therefore, I write today about integrity to you, Reader.  I ask you to look in the mirror.  I ask you to think about yourself and your place in the world.  Surely, surely, you are not one of those who have become so "ripe you have become rotten."  Surely you are one of those who understand that you are like me.  You are one of the Mistake-Makers.  You are one who must learn from your errors.  You are one with my calling, that is, the calling of honesty and truthfulness in character.

For you see, so long as we can be honest with ourselves, so long as we push away what the crowd embraces, so long as we recognize that true integrity must be grounded in the truth, in the purgation and illumination of seeing ourselves as we really are, then we can become what we might become as better persons.

I hope this little essay on integrity has offered something good to you.  I have tried, within the confines of the space I have to write today, to offer you something from my heart and mind, as seeds for something good to come forth within you.  Let us have more integrity today, wherever we live, move, and have our being, and may it not be grounded in common illusions or delusions, but in the truth.  Let us seek that truth first within ourselves, not as we prefer it or wish it to be, but honestly.  And then we will be green and growing!  God help us to that end.  Amen.

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