Integrity … The Foundation of Leadership

Ethical Standards in Leadership … “Ethical standards are key to what we do as the NAVSUP/Supply Community. In addition to demonstrating respect, responsibility, fairness, and caring, ethical decisions generate trust and are consistent with good citizenship. Ethical decision making is not solely a function of whether a law or regulation permits us to do something. We must also consider whether the action sets the right example, and promotes trust, fairness, and personal accountability. Integrity underpins our ethical decisions and is a key enabler for a successful leader. Senior leaders must demonstrate their integrity and lead by example. Although we can all emulate the best qualities of successful leaders, we need to be mindful of the lessons to be learned from unsuccessful leaders. The following article, “Integrity: The Foundation of Leadership,” written by Hale C. VanKoughnett, illustrates the importance of integrity in our leaders.”  – Sandra Jumper, Naval Supply Systems Command  Counsel

The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied in the following article are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Naval Supply Systems Command, the U.S. Navy Supply Corps, the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense or any other branch or agency of the U.S. Government. This article is an adapted version.

    The U.S. government, military, and private sector all devote great resources to leadership training in an effort to create better leaders Integrity for their organizations. For example, the U.S. military services include a leadership component or course in their war college programs, and the Department of State requires Foreign Service Officers to take a leadership course at the entry, mid, and senior levels in order to be eligible for promotion. Private sector motivational speakers who speak about leadership abound. While most experts and trainers in the fields of leadership and management agree that leadership cannot be taught, it can be learned. Leadership courses are a great way to solve this dilemma, by gathering future and current leaders together to study and discuss successful historical figures from the worlds of politics, diplomacy, military, and business, among others. Whether one is a student arguing over case studies in a leadership classroom, or an employee simply endeavoring to better him or herself through observation while on the job, we can all emulate the best qualities of successful leaders.1 But we need to be equally mindful of the lessons to be learned from unsuccessful leaders and the actions that brought their downfall or the failure of their mission or organization.

    What, then, does one need to look for when studying or observing leaders? An ideal leader comprises numerous character traits and skills including vision, decisiveness, experience, wisdom, “people skills,” ability to communicate a message, luck and timing. The essential elements of leadership have been debated and studied for decades. Our understanding of what makes a person a good senior leader, commander, or CEO has evolved over the past 100 years, from Great Man theories to recent cognitive approaches. These widely varying perspectives suggest that no one characteristic can be definitively pinpointed as the most important. My own opinion is that personal integrity is the critical trait on which all others rest. A successful leader must possess and clearly demonstrate integrity in order to maintain the respect, trust, and performance of subordinates. Without integrity, all else deteriorates despite other positive characteristics the leader may have. Like a seemingly solid house constructed on a sinkhole, the organization—whether a military unit, an embassy, a private business, a religious body, and so on—will eventually collapse, no matter how watertight the roof or how glistening the paint job.

    Integrity to me means adherence to a code of moral and ethical principles; it is the quality of being honest and possessing a true moral compass and a sense of selflessness that puts the organization above the leader at the helm. Throughout history there have been politicians, military commanders, and executives who possessed integrity and succeeded, and those who possessed it and failed. Conversely, there have been leaders who lacked integrity and still managed to succeed, and many who lacked it and failed. Like any other trait one can identify, integrity may not be an absolute prerequisite for success, but its absence from a leader’s character exposes the individual and the organization to more danger. Leaders, therefore, need to demand integrity from their staff, supervisors, and colleagues—and most important, from themselves—or they risk stepping onto a slippery slope.

    To be sure, one cannot empirically measure how much integrity a person possesses, if any. Even so, it is possible to look for patterns among leaders and learn from their actions. For example, Nelson Mandela suffered long years in prison without losing sight of his goal of ending apartheid in South Africa. He is of interest here not because of his ultimate success or steadfast refusal to compromise on his positions, but because he endured as a revered leader of a movement, and eventually of a country, and his ethics and morals were beyond reproach. For five decades he has maintained an unsullied image, allowing his followers to continue to believe in him.

    Closer to home is the case of Colin Powell. On his first day as Secretary of State, a crowd in the Department of State main lobby gave him an unprecedented welcome. This greeting was because of his status as a war hero and respected leader. During his tenure at State, he was sidelined from White House decision making concerning the Iraq War. Some believe that Powell surrendered his integrity when he did not make a stronger case against invasion—or resign—rather than support a position with which he did not agree. One can also posit that he was either loyally supporting his Commander in Chief or attempting to remain on the inside to influence policy. But no matter how one feels about his actions regarding Iraq, it would be very difficult to argue that Powell proceeded with an eye toward personal gain. I, therefore, do not believe that this incident calls into question his integrity. Powell’s emphasis on leadership, training, increased staffing, and accountability made him a respected figure at State long after he last passed through the lobby of the Harry S. Truman Building.

    Mandela, Powell, and so many other modern day leaders were successful because they brought together many of the positive qualities identified by experts as common to great men and women. But even more important, Mandela, Powell, and other leaders embodied personal and professional integrity, qualities that cemented their reputations and fortified their followers. Think, for a moment, what would have happened if either Mandela or Powell had been involved in a serious personal scandal during his public career or even after its conclusion. If Colin Powell were discovered to have falsified expense vouchers, his actions would have cast a shadow over his achievements, his longtime supporters would have felt betrayed, and his detractors might have claimed evidence of the hypocrisy that they had suspected all along. His defenders would have been muted, unable to convince anyone that his record on balance was positive.

    More food for thought is what would have happened to the organizations Powell led if his hypothetical ethical or legal infractions would have been known only to a close circle of subordinates. The individuals who might have learned of these hypothetical violations would have certainly faced personal dilemmas. Would they have reported him? Would they have lost respect for him but continue working in silence, either ignoring the evidence or making excuses to themselves? To remain silent would have damaged their own integrity. Or would they have completely abandoned their integrity by taking advantage of the situation, falsifying their own claims, and perhaps expanding into other unprofessional, unethical, or illegal activities? It would have been easy for them to rationalize: “The boss is doing it and getting away with it, and anyway, if he catches me, I’ve got plenty of dirt on him.” Whichever path the individual would have chosen to take, the leader’s dishonesty would have, at a minimum, caused morale problems and at worst would have encouraged within the office rampant illegalities and a breakdown in the organization.

1. Geoffrey Ingersoll, “Petraeus Allegedly Earned A Bronze Star For Combat Valor ‘Without Firing his Rifle,’” Business Insider, November 16, 2012,

2. Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, “Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq,” Military Review, January-February 2006, pp. 2-12.

By Hale C. VanKoughnett, U.S. Department of State