Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall.

Integrity. I believe it’s an under-rated virtue. And it seems to be in shorter and shorter supply these days. People at all levels in business seem to be self-involved, busy watching their own backs, playing politics to a fault. On one side, people who bend with the tide; on the other, dogmatics who monomaniacally resist change. Those selfishly chasing their own gain, vs. those indifferent and just “phoning it in”. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the person of integrity lives in a fragile balance between every one of these all-too-human traits.”

The advertising and marketing business is all about people – we’re dealing with each other every moment. The “golden rule” should apply to leadership and business just as it does in society. And yet, we seem not to be doing right by each other. It’s a shame that, in a business with so many external pressures, where so much can go wrong (and often does), where you’re on the firing line day in and day out, we so often are undone by “friendly fire”.

Look in the mirror. How do you rate on integrity? Michael Feuer, co-founder of OfficeMax, says, “treat your team as grown-ups and partners in whatever you’re doing.” How do you measure up? Take the “Integrity Self-Exam”.

  1. Do you spend more time in self-promotion vs. promotion of your team?
    More and more it seems that those who get ahead do it by self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. Nevertheless, it’s always more important to drive growth and acclaim for those around you. After all, this is a team sport – and there aren’t any real superstars that can prove they do a disproportionate amount of the work or drive a disproportionate amount of the success. By focusing on self, you lose the trust and respect of others. By focusing on others, you gain from their success. And they will work harder for you. And you will sleep better at night.
  2. Are you taking credit for things more often than giving credit to others?
    Similarly, you must avoid being seen seeking out credit – let credit accrue to you due to your team’s successes, instead. As you rise in ranks, it should be less and less important to put your name on things and get the kudos and credit your team’s work drives. It’s more important that your team gets credit – everyone will know you helped steer the ship.But there are organizations that are built around power, fear and insecurity. These types of organizations can drive leaders to seek credit and ownership, to the detriment to the team. But make no mistake – this doesn’t end well. In-fighting, power hoarding and unhappiness through the ranks will be a result.
  3. Do you ask your team to do more than you would do yourself?
    There are plenty of leaders who think that, once they’ve achieved a title, they no longer have to do the things they used to do. They’re “above” all that. Well, that’s rubbish. If you ever believe you are above anythingin this business, you are sadly mistaken. I have written conference reports, collated documents, driven to FedEx, carried presentation materials at every level I’ve ever achieved. And that’s just the way it should be.Showing you’re always ready and happy to get your hands dirty does several good things. First of all, it shows your team you are one of them, you’re with them and you will do whatever it takes. It drives solidarity and respect. Second of all, it helps get work done – as there will be times that you need all hands on deck. And third of all, it keeps you from getting a swelled head or a big ego. A very, very important thing.
  4. Do you (and your team) talk behind others’ backs, instead of going to them and discussing things directly?
    Talking behind people’s backs, be they other team members, partners in other departments, Clients or whatever, solidifies problems and issues, vs. actually helping to address them. While confrontation should be avoided, it’s important to try to address issues directly with people – both to keep things from festering, and to allow people to tell their sides of things. Lots of “big issues” are really just misunderstandings that can be easily dealt with through communication.
  5. When problems occur, do you seek blame vs. taking responsibility?
    I’m not going to say that it’s easy to resist the impulse to find all those “other” people responsible when things go wrong. And there’s no question that, when there are mistakes, you will be able to find lots of people who touched them. But you need to stop the blame game immediately. For a real team leader takes responsibility for things on his or her own shoulders. And, first, puts the emphasis and energy on working things out moving forward, instead of looking back and pointing fingers. Once everything is sorted and back on track, then you should review what went wrong and why. And develop plans and processes on how to avoid these mistakes in the future.
  6. Will you pursue a course or profit from a decision that provides you gain, but others are harmed?
    It’s easy to be lured into bad decisions by easy gains. But whether it’s a promotion or raise, or simply some credit for a personal idea, it’s never worth the repercussions. Because hurting your team, or a member on it, will live with you a long while. And if it’s obvious to you, it’s probably obvious to a lot of other people, too.Focusing on decisions that help your team will help you in the long term, much more than personal short term gains that damage you in the eyes of teams and colleagues.
  7. Do you regularly succumb to the easy route, or will you push on to achieve harder, but more significant goals?
    Sure, everyone needs some quick wins every now and then. But put your focus and emphasis on the big goals – and fight like hell to achieve them. Folks on your team may sometimes be lured by taking the easy path, and may misconstrue your push for more, better, farther as wasteful or foolhardy. But in the end, the satisfaction of having done something very well will win the day.
  8. Do you give your word eagerly, but deliver on it sparingly?
    It’s easy to promise something. But more important is coming through on that promise. It’s much worse to make a promise and not deliver, than to have not promised it at all. Your team will respect your honesty much more than a glad-handed commitment that isn’t really committed to.
  9. Do you always cave to decisions made by your Client or management, vs. questioning them (respectfully, of course)?
    Integrity is, by essence, about standing up for your beliefs. So your team wants to see that you have a point of view and are willing to state it. You won’t shy from questioning decisions. And you’re not just an order-taker. They’ll respect you – even if you don’t get your way, or the decision is made anyway.

So what’s your score? I wish I could say that 4 or 5 “No” answers are enough to pass. But on this test, you’ve got to score 100%.  What do you think? I’d love to hear your “Integrity” stories – please share them with a comment!


  1. I am not sure if I believe that you can “teach” someone to care more about promoting their team then promoting themselves. Perhaps I am not a very good teacher, but this is one thing that managers either seem to get or they are never going to get it. At least my experiences have not been good at trying to develop this trait in new managers, but I would be curious to hear how others have fared.

    1. I actually think you can teach it. Mostly because I think the loss of integrity was taught. People, directly or passively, learned that it wasn’t important, that these approaches weren’t significant. So my hope is they can un-learn these behaviors.

  2. It’s difficult for me to recall, over the course of my business career, if these virtues have been considered intrinsic.

    I think the problem is two-fold.

    First, Too often bullet point lists (unfortunately like your post) are delivered to an organization by Human Resources.

    This list usually mirrors the kind of “Robert’s Rules of Order” most high achievers have encountered at every stop along their self-improvement journey (e.g. Honors Clubs, Fraternities, Sororities, Church Youth Groups, etc . . .). It has become cultural noise rather than something that is seen as an essential philosophy. And it is enough to memorize its language so as to fit in to the larger group without ever internalizing its meaning to self-actualize as an individual.

    The second problem that seems to exist is that there are too many incentives towards expertise in situational ethics rather than systematic critical thought.

    This seems attributed to the rate of change that is promoted within the advertising culture where novelty is valued over foundational principles.

    It is enough to be succeed in marketing and advertising by being well-versed in the latest portmanteau arriving from a self-promoting trend shop or the most popular pop-cultural icon.

    I am not dogging mass culture, but it does seem that an implication towards foundational ethics becomes dulled when the arc of experience considered in relation to others is truncated.

    Sensitivity to larger human issues can be learned but it demands a level of concentration and patience the advertising industry doesn’t reward.

    I’ve found that the best way to sensitize oneself beyond the kind of biases which occur with an addiction to speed, seen in our current business culture, is to gain knowledge through the study of science, history, the arts, literature, philosophy and religion. I don’t see Universities training business people in any of these modes. Most of my colleagues don’t read beyond facebook posts or the latest installment in the Twilight series. I don’t see this changing any time soon. Ethics demands a level of seriousness that is out of fashion in the trendy world of advertising and marketing.

  3. I think integrity not only can be taught, but must be taught. It needs to begin early. Children (all begin as hedonists wanting instant gratification) who are raised by adults who lack certain ethical standards, face a serious deficiency early on. It can be most difficult to overcome, but not impossible. Thank you for your post,

  4. I think it is less of a question of people’s ability to teach ethics (morality) and more a question of if we are willing to make the changes to our environment where that method has meaning (epistemology). I am not one to believe that contra-causal free will exists. Behavior is a product of deterministic factors attached to our environment. As the old adage goes, “A person may do as he wills, but can’t will what he wills.” Currently we don’t have incentives in place within our business environment where taking the long view counts. We thus are determined by the environment we create to opt for situational ethics rather than intrinsic morals. Pressure and pain may change that priority, but a list of well meaning propositions does not seem powerful enough to do so. As long as individual material success can be gained by compromising ethical standards, then compromising ethical standards will rule within business. I’d suggest effective practices in shaming those that transgress against others, rather than a list of virtues we should pursue. Normalized practices of shame towards an ethical standard seems like it would be the proper tool in demanding that standard within the business environment. It would be the right form of adaptive pressure and could allow for the evolution of business ethics.

  5. I’ve only met one person who has been hugely successful in business who passed the basic integrity test. We (minority shareholders of a small oilfield service company – blue collar technical types), got forced out of a small company by the majority shareholder in the most vicious, money grubbing, miserable program ever experienced by us all. I can’t describe how fortunate we are to be on our own, to be able to start over without them. They make more money on interest per year than the value of the company, invest heavily in not paying tax, are selfish and cut off the staff’s charity, Doctor’s Without Borders, whereby the Company has setup a program to pay $1 per employee per day which is equivalent to one life equivalent (Plumpy Nut) – we only had 35 employees and the if you do the math… The Company spent more on frivolous sales luncheons… all for money… we had taken the company on the our home-make motto of “Integrity-Relevence-Accomplishment” from $12MM/yr to $25Mm sales in two years, sustained and survived the economic meltdown and then inherited these two undeserving majority shareholders due to the lack of integrity of the ‘former’ owner who lost the company in a divorce settlement… sold it to real estate vultures.. The only person whom I have met who has passed this test who has been hugely successful is Kevin Delaney of Pure Energy based in Calgary AB… I’m sure there are others, but I haven’t travelled in as large circles as some. Appreciate the opportunity to share with people who believe in the value of integrity as essential to be the best one can be. Lastly – it seems that ‘trust’ is in fact, a lack of integrity – there is no substitute for carrying the ball and taking the outcome without blame or remorse. Those without integrity, have recently confirmed how they can move ahead – they didn’t win anything – we chose to leave the neighbourhood. The largest of the two shareholders exclaimed that he had never in his 44 years in business and 140+ companies ever been shotgunned !! We shotgunned him to the penny of what he had invested as that represented integrity – he chose to stay and so we left – he fought for some of us to stay but couldn’t rationalize that we were chewing our arms off to get clear of him and his minion.

    So we will try again and I pray my son and daughter and their children are also inclined to take the creative risk of integrity and open contribution to those around them and let the chips lie where they may.

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