The Price We Pay to Be Leaders of Integrity

I have been fortunate to know many C-level leaders who have refused to trick, con, swindle, defraud, bamboozle, or dupe their employees and their customers. To them, a handshake meant something and their word was their bond. Aware that they have a responsibility to be a conscientious and competent steward within the company, they acknowledge their commitment to the public trust. Most of these leaders have never made the cover of Harvard Business ReviewTime, or Newsweek but they have received the highest level of respect by their colleagues.

Yet, for many, their integrity came with a price. Some of these character-first leaders were fired, didn’t get promoted, harassed, smeared, or moved to another company prematurely because of their integrity.

I have also known a few executives who have cheated on their spouses, intimidated their employees, and intentionally deceived their customers for corporate profit and personal gain. Skilled in the art of positive public displays, those within the corporate inner circle knew the reality but feared for their jobs or bought into the illusion for their own gain. Some of these leaders were so good at covering their deceit that I too was fooled, sadly to say, for a while.

Yes, these leaders reach astounding heights and public admiration. But over time, their lack of integrity catches up with them. When it does, the costs are even higher. Ask Volkswagen. Last summer, Volkswagen made front page news by surpassing Toyota as the world’s largest auto maker. This June, Volkswagen agreed to pay up to $14.7 billion to settle a case of defrauding the public and the U.S. government for diesel emission tests. An additional $10 billion will be spent by the automaker to buy back or modify VW and Audi vehicles. The largest automaker settlement in United States history also added another $2.7 billion into a trust fund to assist with environmental and emission programs.

According to James Robert Liang, Volkwagen’s former Leader of Diesel Competence(yes, that was his title), they knew about the deception from the very beginning and their efforts were focused on improving the devices so the deception could continue. The lack of integrity has cost Liang his career as he pled guilty to wire fraud, violating the Clean Air Act, and defrauding the government.  He will soon be sentenced for up to five years plus pay a potential fine of $250,000. In addition, Liang’s testimony could lead to indictments of a much broader swath of VW engineers and management.

The hard fact is that, if you want to be a leader with integrity, there is always a cost. Most of the corporate world is busy acquiring and protecting power and using people as instruments. When you choose not to sacrifice your integrity within that system, there will be a price to pay. But, it will never cost you guilt, shame, or remorse. 

Transformative leaders know that building a high-trust organization starts by looking in the mirror. Organizations in which leaders have personal integrity are those that build trusted interpersonal relationships. Rather than personal profit and public adoration, they focus on making a sustainable and significant impact on the lives and livelihood of others.

Join us April 27, 2017 for our Annual Re:Imagine Leadership Summit in San Diego! Learn how your organization can meet the demands of rapid change by creating a culture that can respond swiftly, communicate freely, encourage experimentation, and organize as a network of people motivated by a shared purpose!