Integrity is almost a cliché among today’s leadership bromides. All leaders must possess this trait to be considered legitimate and credible, otherwise they won’t be trusted. Given the fact that integrity is such an import leadership requirement, why do so many company leaders, religious figures, politicians and military leaders fail to gain it? The truth is that given an irresistible temptation or a thirst for power, people are capable of almost anything. Human history is rife with examples, concentration camps in Auschwitz, gassing children in Syria, and to a lesser extent, the infamous fraud at Enron. A great number of personal failings never even make the headlines.
What each example demonstrates is a lack of personal integrity, a fragile asset that is easily squandered. I tell you that from personal experience, as I gave up a measurable amount of my own in 1988, just prior to leaving my position with an international offshore drilling company. As a result, all the positive results I had achieved over my seven years there were erased.
But, first, the back story.
The drilling industry was struggling at the time. As an executive at Reading & Bates Drilling Company. I was assigned to a committee whose mission it was to better guarantee the company’s survival. The theme for the industry then was, “Fix it in 86 or Chapter 11 in 87.”Cost cutting was the primary tool with which we had to work. We were hoping, as we shrunk the budget, to act as surgeons of the company—cut where necessary without killing the patient on the operating table.
It was my job to manage human resources. How could we save money in personnel? I had a few ideas, including a proposal that was downright radical. The firm employed an HR manager in Singapore, an expatriate. His name was Don McIntire, and had worked many more years with the company than I had and did good work. I recommended that the company eliminate his position in Singapore and return Don to the States to replace me. It was expensive to have him abroad, he could be replaced by a local national and he had a similar role to mine. I was firing myself! It wasn’t a trick, though. I truly believed he was better for the job. What an act of integrity, right? I thought so, but don’t nominate me for angel wings just yet.
The president was in such disbelief at my willingness to “sacrifice” myself for the company that he offered me a position in marketing preparing bid packages. Now I was the one who was stunned. People who know me well will tell you that marketing is not one of my gifts. But, the company had created the position for me and I was grateful.
After I had spent a few months in the new position, a headhunter contacted me and talked to me about an HR job with North American Mortgage Company. After a series of interviews I was offered the position. Feeling a strong sense of loyalty to the firm I was with, I went to the president, told him about the offer, and asked him if he thought I should take it. He did. And so I did.
As I was closing things out, I was told I could buy my company car, an Oldsmobile ‘98, at book value, which was well below market. It was a great deal. But the car needed new tires, and I didn’t want to pay for them, not when I could just charge it to the company. In a lapse of judgment, I bought four new tires for the car just before I resigned and then put the cost on my final expense report.
My less than shining moment didn’t go unnoticed. Ironically, it was Don who had replaced me, who as I was signing out, said, “I noticed you are expensing four new tires for your company car. Given that you are leaving this is quite unusual.” I didn’t miss the sarcasm. He didn’t ask that I pay for the tires and I didn’t offer. But the look on his face told it all. I could feel the impact of my action on my parting reputation. I had done a lot of good things for the firm and had always tried to act with integrity. Integrity had become part of my personal brand. But there went my brand promise. It didn’t matter what I had done up until that moment. I had washed it away with that one unfortunate decision.
I often think about that choice I made and wonder why I did what I did and why I didn’t save myself and offer to pay for the tires when I had the chance. I don’t have an answer. I do know that if you damage your integrity in the little things, you prove much more susceptible to failing when faced with the big things. Anytime I’m faced with ethical issues now, no matter how small I remind myself of those tires. I definitely didn’t get them for free.
Doug Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Baptist University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.