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Integrity – Leadership's most formidable weapon in the 21st century

At the final whistle blow of the 1995 World Cup Rugby final, in a match of South Africa against New Zealand, every South African had caught a reconciliatory virus that most had no idea where it had come from, or what it had taken to get there.

The South African Springboks Rugby team; a team that had been written off as no hopers, just a year earlier; representing a sport that had symbolized oppression and apartheid for many; had against all conceivable odds become a unifying force in the most fractious nation.

How had this come about? Well it was a vision of Nelson Mandela, the then newly elected President of South Africa. In just one year after his election he had managed to lead a nation into an invigorating chorus of reconciliation beyond any conceivable imagination. This was the same nation that just a year earlier was on a verge of the most devastating civil war. How had this one man short-circuited all the history of anger, pain, mistrust and hatred that had been the defining character of the South African people for a good few decades? Even if that reconciliatory spirit that gripped the nation for a while, subsequently dissipated in the post-Mandela era, that any leader was able to lead a nation into such a state, against all odds, deserves some examining.

In the movie based on this true story, “Invictus”, President Nelson Mandela is vividly portrayed as the driving force behind the vision to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup to infuse pride and inspiration into the nation. It seemed an insurmountable task. Rugby, at that stage, was perceived by the majority of South Africans as the sport of the oppressor. President Mandela had no overwhelming support from his own ruling party. Further, very few believed the Springboks would make any significant impact in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. In all sense and sensibilities, even on hindsight, Mandela seemed to have picked a wrong catalyst for inspiring a nation and at a wrong time. Yet he defied all conceivable odds. So, how did he do it?

A closer scrutiny of lasting legacy leaders, such as Mother Theresa and Mahatma Ghandi, reveals a similar pattern that we observe in our ex-President and world icon Nelson Mandela. They all garnered unprecedented following for causes that were far outside their followers’ comfort zones. These leaders demonstrated something that we need to all learn about leadership in organisations; that many people are prepared to cross their comfort zone boundaries under certain kinds of leadership. Many organisations and businesses today require their employees to cross these comfort zone boundaries to rise up to the intense challenges of our fledgling world economy today. Naturally the question is, what model of leadership did these lasting legacy leaders mentioned above, exhibit?

Dr Henry Cloud, a well renowned Psychologist who devoted a whole book on the subject of integrity, in his book ‘Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality’ makes this assertion; “Success and fruitfulness depend as much upon focusing on the “who” you are as much as the “what” of the work you do. Invest in your character, and it will give you the returns that you are looking for by only investing in the work itself. You can’t do the latter without the former.” It is in light of this finding that I submit that integrity is the single most defining factor of the long lasting legacies such as that of Nelson Mandela and many other leaders including those mentioned above.

In substantiation of my assertion above, it is necessary, firstly, to examine the definition of integrity. Most trusted English dictionaries define integrity in two parts; viz. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; and the state of being whole and undivided. It is my submission that commonest thread that runs across the entire above-mentioned lasting legacy leadership models, is integrity, as defined above. As already indicated above, Nelson Mandela picked the most unlikely catalyst for reconciliation at the most challenging time. Yet because he operated with integrity as defined above, he managed to get a 45 million strong nation, to cross their comfort zone boundaries and get behind his vision. Nelson Mandela was unwavering in his vision despite all odds stacked against it.

In his best-selling book ‘Mind Wide Open’, Steven Johnson makes an assertion that we are not only constantly emitting involuntary signals about what we really believe in our minds, but we are also wired to unconsciously decipher what others also believe in their minds. Therefore if there is incongruence between what a leader believes and what they do, employees will intuitively be repelled from any cause such leader might want them to buy into.

What this implies, is that leaders who do not operate in integrity as defined above, are significantly impeded in their ability to influence and may thus be tempted to coerce instead. Leaders who get results through coercion or punitive measures, even though they may achieve their targets in the short term, they are bound to repel the best talent in the long term. Therefore it is critical for Talent Management teams to move beyond just managing talent management programs, and begin to assess integrity levels of the organisational leadership. This can be easily incorporated in employee and customer surveys.

A key question however is what can be done if it is found that an organisation’s leadership integrity levels are perilously low. Outlined below are five behavioural elements that leaders can focus on to improve their integrity;

  • Honesty and truthfulness in all stakeholder relationships
  • Staying true to all commitments made to all organisational stakeholders
  • Treating all organisational stakeholders with respect and fairness
  • Being consistent with organisational values
  • Compliance with all legislation, industry codes and professional guidelines
Here is the bottom line, in the context of the 21st century increasing demands on employees’ time and resources; increasingly it is those leaders that operate with integrity, who will be able to sustainably get employees to cross their comfort zone boundaries to meet the ever increasing demands of their organisations’ realities. It is  also these kinds of leaders that will be able to retain the best talent in these increasingly volatile economic realities.
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