Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What is Integrity?

A worthy question.

Most of us, I suspect, have a good working definition of what the word Integrity means. Before I offered my thoughts on the subject, I checked with the good folks at Merriam-Webster to see what they could share on the subject. They offer three (related) definitions for the word:
- Firm adherence to a code of conduct (Incorruptibility)
- Unimpaired in status or perfect condition (Soundness)
- State of being fully complete or without division (Whole)

Integrity, in the context of human behavior, signifies to me doing that which is right, good, and true regardless of the immediate consequences of the choice. I'll illustrate with a simple example. This Christmas season, there were several movies on cable. I was passing through the living room and noticed that a movie that I enjoyed was on. The movie is The Family Man, with Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, and Don Cheadle.

There is a scene near the end of the movie in which Don Cheadle's character, Cash, is a cashier at a convenience store. A young woman approaches the cash register with her item. Cash rings up the sale (a dollar and change). The young woman tenders a single $1 bill and Cash deliberately mistakes it for a $10 bill and proceeds to give her change. She hesitates, recognizing that the cashier has made an error and she is $9 richer for it, only briefly. Just long enough for Cash to ask her is everything is OK. She confirms that it is, and then exits the store.

This scene is not central to the story and the role of the young woman is mere appendage, a tertiary character at best. So, why do I bring it up? I like the scene because it illustrates so well just how easily people trade their integrity for something of little worth. Cash goes on to exclaim his dismay to see the young woman abandon her integrity for the grand sum of $9.

Does Integrity Have Value?
Some wonder what the big deal is; why anyone would even care about something so intangible. Many would question its value and relevance in modern society. And yet, some of these same folks are outraged at Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's alleged selling the seat in the US Senate to the highest bidder or Bernie Madoff's alleged $50 Billion ponzi scheme. Integrity is about being incorrupt and incorruptible. It has nothing to do with the size of the potential gain.

Yes, integrity has value. More to the point, the lack of integrity has great costs. Walmart, for example, invests billions in security systems and personnel because so many of us think that shoplifting is no big deal. Last year Walmart set aside $3 Billion to cover theft related losses. These costs and losses are ultimately paid by the consumers in the form of higher prices.

Positive Examples
Too few people know, or can remember, that General George Washington set a great example for public service. In his first inaugural address, he refused all compensation for his time and his service and asked only that the country bear the expenses attendant to the office of President. For President Washington, it was about serving the country he loved, defended, and helped to create; rather than seeking an opportunity to serve himself as others might have.

Going back to The Family Man, Nicholas Cage's character (Jack Campbell) sought to defuse a dangerous situation by offering to buy the lottery ticket that had been refused by the storekeeper. Jack Campbell had nothing in particular to gain by offering to buy the ticket, but could lose if the irate ticketholder didn't take kindly to his offer "Stupid ass white boy gets capped tryin' to be a hero, news at 11. Is that what you wanna see? DO YOU WANNA DIE?"

What is integrity? It is doing what is right, good and true regardless of the immediate consequences. Those who recognize the true intrinsic value of their own personal integrity guard it closely. Those who have yet to discover its value, willingly trade it for naught.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a Sunday School lesson. The real world just isn't like that. Get Real!

MGM said...

You miss the point. This is the real world that suffers from lack of ethics and integrity. Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, Andy Fastow and Jeff Skilling of Enron, Bernie Madoff more recently are all excellent examples of how this "Sunday School" lesson plays out in real life.

Keeping it real.

Anonymous said...

How about the Wall Street pukes of the former Bear Stearns (Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi)? These two hedge fund managers lied to investors that all was well even though they new that the mortgage busiess was tanking.

These two destroyed a respected company (Bear Sterns is now part of JP Morgan Chase).

Unknown said...

I came upon your blog post when I was looking for the clip in Family Man that took place with Cash being the store clerk. I was telling a friend how that scene has affected me to this day. Oddly enough 12 clips from that movie exist on line and not one is that scene, Including a site that has clips from movies which have inspirational or powerful scenes.
I feel that is an extremely powerful scene and has changed the way I conduct myself.
Every time I have gotten the wrong change or if I have mistakenly left something in my cart and not paid for it I have always checked myself on whether keeping whatever it is is worth my integrity. That scene always come to mind every time.
This year I was in Vancouver and went to a meet up at a local pub. I had to rush out to relieve my babysitter and completely forgot to pay my tab for the one cider I had ordered. Around midnight I realized I had done this and felt horrible. I would have gone back to the bar at that point but waking my 7 year old go would have been a bit extreme. Sunday morning she and I walked down to the pub and waited for them to open. When I finally got someones attention to come outside (I couldn't go in with a child) I explained the situation. He thought I was nuts that I came back to pay for one cider. I told him I didn't want the waitress to have to cover it or anyone else. After he throurghly explained to me it was fine and the bar was happy to cover it and not to worry, I felt better.
I like not having guilt for something I could fixed or would have hurt someone.
I'm no where near perfect but that scene has given me the inspiration on how to conduct myself.