EverydayMatters: In search of good ethics and integrity

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 16, 2020 - March 22, 2020.
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You’re looking for three things, generally, in a person — intelligence, energy, and integrity. And if they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two. I tell them: 

Everyone here has the intelligence and energy; you wouldn’t be here otherwise. But the integrity is up to you.  You weren’t born with it and  you can’t learn it in school. — Warren Edward Buffett,  renowned American investor  (1930–present)

So, let me get this straight, Prof,” Yusry Adam, my MBA student, asked with his hand raised, “responsibility exists as a three-way relationship, in which a subject who takes specific actions is ultimately responsible to certain authorities for its consequences.” I nodded, happy that he is following my presentation.

“The person responsible for the deed is put in relation to those who are directly or indirectly affected by it,” I added.

“How then, is integrity related to responsibility and ethics in general?” Yusry was at it again.

“In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions,” I explained. “Integrity evolved from the Latin word integritas, meaning whole or complete. In this context, integrity is the inner sense of ‘wholeness’ deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others ‘have integrity’ to the extent that they act according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold.”

“The word ‘character’ is derived from the Greek word charattein, meaning to engrave. This provides a much richer understanding of integrity as something we can develop and strengthen, rather than as a glass ball in our hands that we try in vain not to drop. Our integrity is shaped by our most valuable life lessons, those that involved our deepest issues of honesty and motive. Integrity requires humble introspection, not self-righteous declaration. For instance, I may say without hesitation that I do not lie, cheat or steal; but have I ever attempted to deceive someone? I may in fact be lying to myself.

“So before we can even embrace the notion of integrity, we need to develop the ability to wrestle with the urge to rationalise away our underlying faults and the related consequences. Our actions must mirror our words in all facets of life. The engraving process that is the development of our character requires courage and transparency to forge this true integrity. My integrity is what it is today because of painfully valuable lessons with consequences, born from accountability to moral and ethical principles.

“I learned not to lie because of a lie I told when was young, one that had a painful consequence. Then, years after, my integrity would not tolerate a simple lie; I improved on this lesson even further: I learned that satisfaction with a half-truth is unacceptable when the whole truth can be won. The lesson was expensive yet so valuable, and I only understood it with the help of a mentor who taught me that integrity is not the absence of failure, it’s moving forward from it.”

There was a moment of silence as my words sank in. Then, the room was filled with loud murmurs and head shaking. We were discussing business ethics and governance and in that moment, I realised: They were looking for more than the slides in front of them. My MBA cohort wanted to understand the events that were evolving around them over the last three weeks — the political roller coaster that culminated with the formation of a new government that was not elected in by the people. They were looking for ethics and responsibility on the national stage.

Suddenly, we were no longer in a teacher-student situation. These young adults wanted to understand the events that may shape their very future. I have always advised them that a period of catharsis after a monumental event is helpful, even required, in order to make sense of an evolving environment.

I gave them this: Integrity can be defined as always interacting with others ethically and honourably. People with integrity aspire to the highest ethical standards and expect the same behaviour of others. They conduct themselves honourably in any situation that may arise. The Random House Dictionary defines integrity as: “Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty. The state of being whole, entire or undiminished. A sound, unimpaired or perfect condition.

In other words, integrity means doing what you say you want to do, and not change your stand every time the ground below you shakes.

“The recent events that saw politicians change their stands despite earlier assurances and statutory declarations in support of a position are incomprehensible,” soft-spoken Usha said. “I cannot support a leader without integrity! What is our nation turning into now? How can our leaders sideline their integrity in exchange for power?”

I understood their concerns well. These are students who will one day become leaders of our nation and they wanted to understand what constitutes the higher ground in Malaysia. Integrity had been the buzzword in this class even before the change of government. During our earlier classes, I impressed upon them that no one can justify the use of dubious means to achieve a business or political end. “There is no right way to do a wrong thing!”

“The horse-trading that went on behind the scenes during the fall of our duly elected government surely must count as unethical, the actors lacking integrity,” thoughtful and politically aware Brian Chong chipped in. I smiled. This is ethics, or the lack of it, in action, people. No longer theoretical, but applied and so current.

In his book The Servant of the People, Prof Muel Kaptein of the Rotterdam Business School states that integrity starts when politicians know what their positions entail, because integrity is related to their position. Integrity is acting consistently, not only with what is generally accepted as moral, but primarily with what is ethical, and what honest politicians should do, based on reasonable arguments.

Furthermore, integrity is not just about why a politician acts in a certain way, but also about who the politician is.

Questions about a person’s integrity cast doubt not only on their intentions but also on the source of those intentions, the person’s character. So integrity is about having the right ethical virtues that become visible in a pattern of behaviour.

“Assuming 16th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was right, that we follow a social contract where people submit themselves to be ruled by a responsible government, shouldn’t the leaders in government act in a predictable and positive manner?” asked Letitia, the “brain” of the class.

I agreed, adding: “David Long, professor of organisational behaviour at the College of William & Mary, says that there are just three key pillars of a leader’s trustworthiness — and integrity is one of the three. ‘Followers determine how trustworthy a leader is, based on their ability, their benevolence and their integrity,’ he says. ‘Followers are willing to be vulnerable in a good way to leaders they trust, and are more inclined to be satisfied with and committed to them.’”

I wanted to tell them: Primarily, integrity in any workplace, be it parliament or the company, is important as this trait fosters a positive culture. One where there is open communication, good decision-making and a strong moral compass guiding all decisions and actions. Whereas irresponsible behaviour and distrust can make a work environment uncomfortable and tense.

When we demonstrate integrity, we draw others to us because we are trustworthy and dependable. We are principled and can be counted on to behave honourably under any circumstances. In essence, it is when the inner world of our truth, beliefs, ethics, commitments, values and desires aligns with our actions and behaviour in the outer world. Integrity is deep and, I would say, it involves living from the soul. Sadly, we did not see that in the actions of our politicians recently.

As the world grapples with current economic uncertainties, born of self-interest and egotistical acts and a global pandemic, I guess my students wanted clarity; to see national leaders acting more responsibly, with integrity and strong ethics. We are all in agreement that the leaders who live with integrity inspire followers by bringing all of who they are to their work, and the positive effects are felt by everyone around them. It is not surprising, therefore, that in a business organisation and in the august hall of parliament, the leader’s integrity has a huge impact on its culture.

Class dismissed.

Zakie Shariff is managing partner of Kuber Venture Bhd, a specialist investment company. He is also a director of Universiti Malaysia Pahang.

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