The Power of Integrity for Executives

Executives hear the word “integrity” quite a bit. The car dealer down the street claims to operate with integrity, the online retailer says they will handle your personal information with integrity, or the person you are interviewing for a job says that integrity is their greatest strength.  But what, exactly, does integrity mean?  And why is it so important in executive coaching, in business and in life?

What does integrity mean?

The definition of integrity according to the Encarta Dictionary of English is as follows:

“1. the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards; 2. the state of being complete or undivided; 3. the state of being sound or undamaged”

This means that if you practice integrity in your life, you treat it as an important value that is not to be breached or discarded for any reason.  As described by Brian Tracy, a well known author and personal/business coach, integrity is a “foundational value” because it is what makes all of your other values possible.  If you do not have integrity, he asserts, your other values become much less significant because you are more likely to “bend them” to fit your circumstances rather than using them to help you change them.

An old cliche about integrity says that true integrity is what you do when nobody else is looking, which is absolutely accurate.  Most people display integrity when they know they might get caught if they don’t display integrity, but far fewer people practice integrity even when there is no chance they would get caught if they were to do anything else.

Why is integrity so important in life?

Personal integrity is important in life because, quite frankly, it reveals who you really are.  It is not something that comes and goes based on situations or convenience, but rather something that stays with you all the time.  You either have it or you don’t.  It’s that simple.

When you make integrity a central part of your life, you have very clear knowledge about who you really are.  You know what is important to you, you know what you want, and you know what is right.  Integrity means being 100% honest with yourself and then being consistent with that honesty in your actions.  There is no room for denial, excuses, or rationalizations, either expressed to others or what you tell yourself inside your head.

This is extraordinarily important, so it should be emphasized again:

“Integrity is being honest with yourself, being consistent in your actions,and not tolerating denial, excuses, or rationalizations to yourself or others.”

Some executive coaches use the analogy of an “integrity bank account” to illustrate the concept of integrity.   In this analogy, you are the proud owner of a bank account in which you deposit all of your integrity.  Whenever you lie to yourself, you do something inconsistent with your beliefs or values, or you otherwise display lack of integrity, you are making a withdrawal from your account.  However, when you are honest with yourself, you behave in ways that are consistent with your beliefs or values, and you display integrity regardless of whether or not anybody else will notice, you are making a deposit into your account.

Managing your integrity bank account

Stop for a moment and ask yourself a few important questions.  Just how full is your integrity bank account?  Is it full to the top and overflowing with integrity?  Is it shrinking steadily?  Or is it overdrawn and you have a great deal of debt?

The great news is that no matter the level of your integrity bank account, you can fill it up and regain your integrity.  Of course if you are down near zero or in negative numbers it will take some time and some concerted effort on your part, but it is definitely not out of reach if you want to get it back.  Integrity is a choice you make, not something that happens to you, so all you have to do is make the right choice.

Here are some ways to make deposits into your integrity bank account:

  • Keep your word – When you give your word to yourself or to others, keep it.  Do not break it.  Period.
  • Be careful what you promise – It’s all too easy to make big promises to yourself and to others, but if you are not careful about what you promise it is very hard to actually fulfill them.  Never make a promise you will not be able to keep.
  • Communicate when circumstances change – Sometimes circumstances will change after you have given your word or made a promise such that you can no longer deliver on what you said.  When this happens, go back to the person(s) to whom you made the commitment to communicate with them about the changes and come to a new agreement on a new commitment.  This is not about making excuses or avoiding responsibility; this is about maintaining your integrity with open communication even when circumstances change.
  • Be fair – It’s human nature to like some people more than others, or be more comfortable around some people more than others.  No matter how or what you feel about the people around you, always treat others with fairness.  Do not play favorites.
  • Be careful of your words – It is true that words, once spoken, cannot be taken back, so be very careful of the words you use with others and with yourself.  Stay away from gossip, speculation, trash talk, rumors, and all other kinds of destructive words.  Your words are very powerful, whether you say them out loud or say them in your head, so don’t make the mistake of using that power inappropriately.
  • Show respect and courtesy – No matter how mean or dishonest or unlikable you think someone is, always show respect and courtesy.  This does not mean condoning their inappropriate actions or standing by while you watch them mistreat or mislead someone else; rather, it means asserting yourself with integrity when faced with a person whose behavior is inappropriate, but doing so in a respectful way that does not blame, ridicule, or denigrate the other person.

This may seem like a lot to remember, but if you think about it carefully it is really just common sense.  You have the ability to make the choice about whether or not to practice integrity, and you must make that choice repeatedly throughout the day whenever you face a situation where your integrity might be at risk.  Always keep your integrity bank account in mind, picturing in your mind whether you are making deposits or making withdrawals.  Many times it is this simple act of awareness that is enough to shift your behavior into integrity.


  1. What a great article on such an important topic. The point of being honest with yourself can sometimes be easy to overlook. One other point that I believe goes along with integrity is being able to admit your mistakes. All of us make mistakes, so take responsibility for them (including the mistakes made by members of your team if you are in a leadership/management position) and move forward to find a solution.

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