Leadership Integrity: How to Get It, How to Keep It, and Why It Matters

There is simply no denying that good leadership begins with good character. The career-ending decisions, bad behaviors, and lack of integrity demonstrated by many politicians, entertainers, athletes, and others in the public eye are almost beyond belief. Indeed, the leadership failures in the private and public sectors—including law enforcement—are, more often than not, failures of integrity. The ethical failures so common among today’s leaders seem to point not to a crisis of skill or ability, but to a crisis of character.1 Unfortunately, rather than rewarding leaders with strong character, followers are too often captivated by leaders with charisma. Yet, despite the importance that many followers place on charisma, history has demonstrated repeatedly that charisma does not reflect the personal and professional integrity necessary for effective leadership.

History is full of examples of leaders, who, despite their obvious charisma and political skill, failed in their roles because they lacked the character necessary to sustain the public trust. For example, former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s legacy was forever changed by the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up. Rather than being remembered for his foreign policy achievements, he is forever remembered for lying about his involvement with Watergate. The scandal so destroyed Nixon’s credibility as a leader that he lost all influence, eventually forcing him to resign in disgrace. Indeed, the people of the United States have never looked at their government leaders in quite the same way again. Another U.S. president who suffered integrity issues was Bill Clinton—despite all his gifts and talents, questions about his integrity hounded him and undermined his leadership throughout most of his presidency.

It is worth noting that character is different than charisma. Charisma is based on personality or image, while character represents a leader’s moral center. Character influences a leader’s goals, values, self-concept, work ethic, and code of behavior. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the study of ethics is the study of character itself and that, without character, there can be no ethics.2 This implies, among other things, that a leader can have a charismatic personality, but be devoid of character. In other words, a leader can be charming, personable, and dynamic, but hold core values based on egoism, power, and arrogance. Truly effective leaders, on the other hand, understand the relationship between good character and leadership effectiveness—especially the importance of integrity.