Ask a good leader what they stand for, what they value most, and you will hear two words more than any others: honesty and integrity. Every leader likes to think they stand for both honesty and integrity, and they often use these words interchangeably. While related, they represent distinctly different ideas.
We all know honesty is free of deceit. When we stand for honesty, we believe in telling the truth. However, telling the truth has boundaries. Good leaders try never to use the truth as a weapon. Since the truth can harm relationships and destroy goodwill, even the most honest leaders often withhold information to spare someone’s feelings. This makes being honest a matter of degree.
How much truth, how quickly, and with what force are central questions to ask and answer. Hitting people on the head with the truth may be honest but is rarely the best course of action. Honest leaders carry the truth necessary to help, and not hurt, others.
While sometimes it is necessary to be candid regardless of hurt feelings, when leaders say they stand for honesty, they mean they try to be as honest as the situation and the people involved allow them to be. Honest leaders always prefer the candid truth, but bend to the needs of others when necessary.
Integrity is a different animal altogether. Integrity is about adhering to a moral or ethical code.
Our actions reflect whether we operate to the standards others agree represent the code. We have integrity when our choices, decisions, and actions live up to the standards of the ethical rules shared by others.
Professionally, the code is well-known, but unstated. Avoiding conflicts of interest, maintaining fairness through objectivity, following up with others, keeping promises. These and numerous other ingredients constitute the implicit rules of integrity.
If honesty is about words, integrity is about actions. Here is the rub: a leader can be honest and not have integrity. In other words, a leader can value expressing the truth, but still fail to live up to the qualities others believe constitute integrity. Such is the nature of adhering to the unwritten principles of professional conduct. Great leaders strive to possess both honesty and integrity. Honesty combined with integrity is the foundation of character.