The vital importance of integrity

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 08-02-11

I recently wrote this post on integrity, extolling the importance of maintaining integrity. The fundamental premise of the argument is that lost integrity is unrecoverable.

In the many conversations that this statement has generated, both online and offline, many of the examples of lost integrity being regained were essentially cases of proving that the issue was not in fact a breach of integrity, but instead an oversight, a misstep, or someone else’s breach of integrity.

Take for example the case at McKinsey. In the consulting and advising world, which is where I live, integrity is vitally important, along with insight and intelligence (and a whole bunch of other factors, but I’ll stop there). McKinsey had a Partner collaborating with a hedge fund by providing confidential information from clients on which to trade and, well, get rich(er). Even the former head of McKinsey, Rajat Gupta, is charged in the proceedings. Given that these were long-time employees, it’s hard not to shed some of the blame onto the company itself. After all, these people were selected and promoted within the system. As McKinsey’s global head of consulting, Dominic Barton, concedes, only time will tell whether permanent damage has been done to the firm.

Goldman Sachs appears to recognize the importance of integrity. In its Business Principles you find the following statement:

Our assets are our people, capital and reputation.
If any of these is ever diminished, the last is the most difficult to restore. We are dedicated to complying fully with the letter and spirit of the laws, rules and ethical principles that govern us. Our continued success depends upon unswerving adherence to this standard.

Although it doesn’t explicitly use the word “integrity” it is fair to expect this is a big part of the meaning of “reputation.”

In the book The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance, a thorough history of the building of J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, et. al., both Pierpont Morgan and Jack Morgan stood steadfast behind the belief that the integrity of the individual that they were loaning to was far more important than the collateral they offered for a loan.

On a far smaller scale, a contractor currently doing work at my house has consistenly promised one schedule and delivered on another. The work product is great, but his integrity has many holes. If someone asked me for a referral to him, I would end up telling them “he does great work, just don’t believe anything he says.”

To further this question, I offer these questions for reflection. I encourage you to comment here, or use them for your own reflection.

1. What does integrity mean to me?

2. What strategies do I employ to avoid accidentally breaching my integrity?

3. How do I recover when my actions unintentionally threaten my integrity?

One can assume that if integrity is important to us, then we at least intend to maintain it. If we intentionally breach it, then the above questions are of no use, as is this entire discussion.