What is leadership without integrity?

Published on
12 April 2022

Escient Director, Anthony Tham shares an excerpt from a recently authored and published article exploring the importance of Integrity in Effective Leadership. The article not only reflects the deep experience Anthony has in Consulting but also notes his lived experience working with Escient.

In 2021 I wrote a chapter for Mike Cameron’s book Effective Leaders. Effective Leaders tells stories through personal and lived experiences that highlight the importance of mastering the seven core characteristics of effective leadership whilst establishing trust in the workplace. There are also chapters on the four attributes – Respect, Courage, Integrity and Agility – underpinning the key leadership qualities.

David Maister has argued that professionalism is about a dedication to personal improvement and a commitment to providing the best and most efficient service to clients. A part of achieving this outcome is working with other professionals and guiding clients; in both cases, these groups have to have a reason to follow or listen to you. Four tests need to be met: motives, values, competence and style. The first test that a leader and advisor must meet is that of motives, and central to passing this test is a perception of the leader’s Integrityi

I have worked for 25 years in a professional service setting, and I can attest to this perspective; having Integrity is like having air, water or currency. The work in a professional services context is a lot about the success of others. This work could be delivering a project, crafting a strategy, identifying the route to solving a problem. A high regard for your Integrity is necessary because you bring advice to the table. 

What does Integrity encompass? What does it mean to be or have Integrity? Not surprisingly, it isn’t a simple concept to define. Over time we have developed distinct and overlapping definitions for different contexts. Looking at the origins of the term integrity, we can find a lineage back through Old French (circa 1400) to the word intégrité that means “innocence” or “blamelessness” and further back to the Latin terms in-tangere to mean “untouched” and integer that can represent “whole” or “entire”. At its origins, the concept of Integrity encompasses wholeness, unbroken, intact. We can derive a view that describes a person whose life is whole, not fragmented. These people live their life by a single set of principles. These people are clear about what motivates them, and others see these values through how these people live their lives. When we think about people with Integrity, we expect that these people do what they say they’re going to do even when there’s no one there to see you doing it; they act with transparency and live authentically. These people also own up to their mistakes and remain accountable. 

Let’s consider Integrity in the context of authenticity, transparency and accountability. 

These are intertwined concepts. Being transparent about one’s motives, plans and outcomes allow accountabilities to be achieved. In effect, “transparency enables accountability”ii. Authenticity supports and gives credibility to our motives, plans and outcomes we achieve. Without authenticity, transparency and accountability are hollow. Integrity depends upon behaving with authenticity, acting transparently and taking accountability for your actions. Authenticity drives integrity outcomes, and transparency and accountability provide the control measures. 

Authenticity is perhaps the hardest of these three concepts that support Integrity to pin down. Authenticity is a little like the Theory of Relativity; each person’s particular authenticity depends on their frame of reference. For many, authenticity can refer to being true, genuine or real. However, this underplays the meaning and value of authenticity. Authenticity isn’t a fixed perspective; instead, it develops as each of us grows and is unique to us. Dr Nina Burrowes writes that authenticity is “about being your own ‘author’. Authenticity is an active and creative process. It’s about revealing something, it’s about building something; and that something is ‘you’.iii.  

The implication of the ‘building something’ perspective that Nina Burrowes shares is that many of us must consider breaking away from something familiar to us. On the other hand, growing and developing our own version of authenticity aligns with the changing demands of our lives. What can we do if we want our world view of authenticity to be an active and creative one? In my experience, you can apply a few strategies, which are nicely summarised by Herminia Ibarra’s 2015 Harvard Business Review article titled The Authenticity Paradox. The strategies are: 

When Brené Brown talks about authenticity, she wants us to recognise that we will be “cultivating the courage to be imperfect…to allow ourselves to be vulnerable”. This is to say that being authentic is not easy. But this shouldn’t stop us from living authentically because “sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think just isn’t worth it”v

Transparency and accountability should operate together. Transparency without accountability can allow someone to act without Integrity. Accountability is about expectations and working to fulfil the expectations, and transparency provides clarity about the actions we take. 

As with just about anything we use or do in life, transparency works best when using it within boundaries. The guard rails that boundaries provide are necessary because the wrong types of transparency can create as many problems as the good types help. An effective way to prevent the wrong kinds of transparency is to make the motivations for transparency well-known. Organisational values usually provide an essential reference point for framing the boundaries for openness. 

This is how I have experienced a positive version of transparency in recent years. Escient, the firm I work with, exercises transparency through a few simple practices.  

Our results are shared across the company every month, and this includes sharing the underlying highs, lows, and challenges related to the results. There is an inherent honesty in discussing what has gone well and where we have to tackle challenges. The uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic brought showed the value in this form of transparency as it helped retain resiliency across the organisation. 

Our flat structure and open-door policy helps to promote a culture of exchange. Our office layouts and environments that provide a base for our consultants also facilitate opportunities for sharing and discussion. Our principle has been to avoid creating controls or barriers that don’t need to exist. 

There are a few ways of thinking about accountability, and in this instance, I want to look at personal accountability. 

Personal accountability is our commitment to fulfilling our promises, owning up to mistakes, carrying out a task we have taken on and acknowledging our responsibility for the part we play in our organisation or social context. In the work I have been involved in through providing professional services, personal accountability is critically important. It contributes to building and maintaining trust. Leaders and professionals who cannot inspire trust have a hard time leading and providing advice.  

The benefits that Integrity bring are substantial and vital. When I reflect on the benefits that Integrity can bring to people and organisations, I distil it down to a few results: 

It’s not just me who has this view about the benefits. In 2020, Ernst & Young conducted research to build insights into Integrity and ethics for organisations. Participants were asked to select the three most important benefits of operating with Integrity, and they responded with (1) having a strong corporate reputation, (2) attracting new customers and (3) retaining talented employeesvi

These benefits don’t come easily. Unsurprisingly, some behaviours and beliefs make these kinds of positive outcomes difficult. In the same Ernst & Young research, it was reported that 30 per cent of respondents would be prepared to behave unethically to improve their career progression or remunerationvii. The evidence shared during the 2018 Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry Royal Commission is hard to look past when thinking about poor examples of Integrity. 

These, and any number of other examples, should be catalysts for each of us to contribute to building more Integrity into our communities and lives. Consider Integrity in the context of a system, where the values, relationships and processes that connect various people and organisations make the whole more than the sum of its parts. The behaviours, our authenticity, matter; each of us shapes the system as much, if not more, as the system shapes us. I’d argue that the balance of power is with us. The Integrity we bring – by acting with transparency and living authentically, and remaining accountable – can drive the growth in the system’s capacity, in our capacity, to innovate, learn and adapt. There is a lot to gain from Integrity. 

 Maister, D. H. (1997). True Professionalism: the courage to care about your people, your clients and your career. New York: The Free Press.

[ii] Australian Institute of Company Directors. (2019, January 30). Principle 7: Transparency and accountability. Retrieved July 12, 2021, from Australian Institute of Company Directors:

[iii] Burrowes, D. N. (2014, April 11). Think authenticity is about being honest and open? Think again. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from The Guardian:

[iv] Ibarra, H. (2015, January). Leadership | The Authenticity Paradox. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from Harvard Business Review:

[v] Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City: Hazelden Publishing.

[vi] Ernst & Young. (2020). Global Integrity Report 2020. Ernst & Young.

[vii] ibid

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