Muhammad Ali, hero of the 20th century, died last night. If you’re too young to remember his story, I encourage you to read a couple of the many articles recapping his inspiring journey. As you will learn, his record-shattering accomplishments as a boxer are overshadowed by his impact as an agent for social change. Reflecting on what we can learn from Ali, in this post I discuss the relationship between integrity and courage.
In common conversation the word “integrity” is most often associated with honesty. But that’s a very narrow understanding of the concept. In addition to honesty, integrity is about being whole and unimpaired. We can speak about the integrity of a roof or a ship’s hull. When a structure can remain unimpaired in the face of pressure, assaults or stressors, that structure has strong integrity.
When it comes to a person, integrity involves the ability to remain true to one’s values in the face of pressure, assaults or stressors. We know little about the strength of a person’s integrity when life is easy. What if it will cost you your job? What if you’ll lose some friends? What if you’ll go to jail? What if you’ll get beat up — or worse? We only learn about the strength of a person’s integrity when things get tough, when adhering to those values involves a high cost.
When we think about integrity in this way, the relationship between integrity and courage is revealed. Courage involves the willingness to move forward despite the probable costs. When things get tough, when costs are high, living with strong integrity requires a great deal of courage.
This is but one lesson we can learn from the life of Muhammad Ali. The costs of maintaining his integrity were very high, but his courage never waivered. He bore those costs willingly. That’s why he became a hero.
Thanks for reading. As always I’m interested in your thoughts.
The recent Volkswagen scandal presents us with yet another example of intentional, enduring dishonest behavior by an organization. But it’s only the latest example. And it’s not just for-profit companies. This occurs in government entities, religious organizations, the Olympics, news organizations, sports teams and academic institutions, just to name a few. It’s everywhere. And it’s not going to stop. Root cause analysis won’t provide a solution. Increased regulation won’t provide a solution. More severe penalties won’t provide a sufficient deterrent.
However, we should continue to do those things. We can’t just throw our hands up and do nothing. But we must acknowledge reality. Despite our efforts, dishonest behavior continues with a depressing frequency. So what can we do? And more to the point, what can you, as a leader, do?
You must operate in your main sphere of influence – which is you. You must maintain impeccable integrity. Temptation is everywhere. Don’t try to see what you can get away with. It’s a very slippery slope. You must make how you accomplish your goals even more important than actually accomplishing the goals. If you can’t figure out how to succeed without cheating, then choose failure. If you’re ordered to do something that’s not right, refuse even if you’ll be fired. If everyone around you is engaging in dishonest behavior, leave the organization.
Don’t bend the rules, and don’t tolerate that sort of behavior. If you become aware of unethical behavior, report it. Become a whistle blower. Maintain your integrity, even if it’s unpleasant and costly. Remember the words of Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
I’m not suggesting this is easy. In many cases, this takes a great deal of courage to operate with integrity. I think it’s worth the struggle.
Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.