Plato’s dictum is a test of leadership. It applies equally to communities, businesses, schools, families, and individuals. What is honoured in a community will be cultivated there. What is honoured in a business will be cultivated there. What I honour in my life, I will cultivate in my life.
Leadership can only be built on integrity; misleadership, on the other hand, fosters the disintegration we see around us: people fall apart, organisations fall apart, communities and nations fall apart. Ultimately, even seemingly indestructible social and political structures fall apart, as did the USSR in 1989.
What is integrity? Most people say it is ‘honesty’ — being as good as your word. But it is more than that. Integrity is completeness, wholeness, or perfect condition. When something falls apart, it disintegrates.
Integrity is possessing the fullness of life — being everything we were intended to be. Fulfilment is our goal in life. We have in our minds, however clear or murky, a vision of what we ought to be. Everything in our lives either works towards that vision or against it. Achieving fulfilment depends on the choices we make in every moment.
Things that are consistent with our vision help us grow towards completeness, while inconsistencies undermine our efforts. Inconsistencies are the internal contradictions that frustrate progress. They divide us from within, making us unreliable and unpredictable. They damage trust and relationships. Integrity demands the progressive elimination of contradictions.
This also applies to groups and organisations. But for institutions, integrity may be more formally defined in terms of strategic alignment, structural soundness, cultural consensus, and ethical practices. Corporate integrity is an obvious measure of the quality of leadership in any business.
A loss of integrity increases the need for rules and regulation. Where people aren’t united through trust, they have to be bound by laws. The stifling growth of compliance in business arises from the loss of trust caused by dishonesty, intimidation, and malpractice. The dearth of leaders is inextricably tied to the erosion of integrity.
It is important to remember that integrity is perfection, and we are all imperfect human beings. Integrity is a journey, one on which wrong turns are an ever-present possibility. And it requires each individual to ponder the questions Immanuel Kant said all people face sooner or later: “Who am I?” “What ought I to do?” “What may I hope?”
Thereafter, we have to make choices about our lives that no one else can make for us. And they should tally with our answers to the questions. The alternative is to drift through life, tossed here and there by whatever circumstances assail us.
Everyone has a worldview (how we understand the meaning of life) from which our attitudes emanate; and our attitudes shape the way we conduct our casino lives. Inevitably, integrity depends on one’s worldview, which according to our definition of leadership must meet certain criteria in order to provide the soil in which integrity can be cultivated:
- Respect for the dignity of all people. This is the basis of human rights, and the only meaningful foundation on which human relationships can be built.
- Respect for the power of human reason, whatever its limits and fallibility. Reason is the bridge that fosters community and the hope of justice and peace for all.
- Respect for the unique potential of individuals, which must be nurtured to enable people to pursue fulfilment within the context of community.
- Respect for personal freedom, i.e. the freedom to choose those things we know to be good for ourselves, others, and the community. The modern view of freedom as licence to do what we like corrupts the idea and says community is only possible through external control.
- Commitment to a scientifically-informed stewardship of the environment, respecting the needs of humanity and nature.
The careers of great non-Western leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela, and Gandhi demonstrate that these principles are transcultural. Violating them destroys integrity, and usually involves violence and untruth. Alexander Solzhenitsyn emphasised the connection:
“Let us not forget that violence does not and cannot flourish by itself; it is inevitably intertwined with lying…nothing screens violence except lies, and the only way lies can hold out is by violence.”
The current crisis of the West stems from a loss of integrity. Poor education and technologically-driven junk culture enable governments to promote a worldview that seeks fulfilment in profligate consumerism, a promiscuity that destroys relationships, a licence that spawns all manner of addictions, and a nihilism that breeds anti-social behaviour. The same governments then pose as the champions of the lonely, the uneducated, the addicted, and the socially maladjusted.
No wonder integrity is at a premium and leadership is lacking. Except in men and women who still believe in personal virtue. These are the leaders of the future, raising hope against the scourge of misleadership.
The above is a précis of Chapter Four of Leaders and Misleaders by Andre van Heerden. In the next article, Andre will consider Thinking for yourself.