When it comes to the core values that contribute to a person’s character, integrity is high on the list. It’s a desirable trait, one people inherently crave in leaders, and one most people would like to strive for in their own lives.
However, many would say that integrity is distinctly lacking in modern society; politicians lie and deceive, and many of the world’s most influential leaders are dishonest, instead manuaeving to stay in positions of power or wealth, rather than do the right thing.
Integrity, as a symbol, has an alluring quality. Most of us would identify it as valuable, though it’s easy to feel as if it’s a magic ingredient, one that isn’t quite tangible. It’s easy to intuitively sense when someone (or ourselves) acts without integrity, and easy to spot when someone like Malala Yousafzai acts with integrity. When integrity is present, you know it.
Moral principles, moral compass
Integrity is a moral compass. It’s an umbrella term that consists of many different parts, a foundation of living a purposeful life that prioritizes authenticity and courage. Marcus Aurelius perhaps summed up integrity succinctly with one sentence: “If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.”
However, acting in this way is easier said than done. In this guide, we’ll provide a breakdown of the ingredients that make up integrity, explaining its importance, and offer a number of steps to cultivate integrity in your own life.
To demonstrate integrity: Definition and examples
First, let’s dive into the language. According to Merriam Webster, the word integrity is defined as firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values. Another definition is the quality or state of being complete or undivided.
The latter definition makes sense, considering the word derives from the Latin integer, meaning “whole.” The Old French integrite, from the 1400s, means “innocence, blamelessness; chastity, purity.”
On a simple level, integrity is knowing the difference between right or wrong, and acting in coherence with that knowledge. It’s a way of being aligned with values, of doing the right thing, even if the whole world goes against you. The difficulty is, many of us are disconnected from our values, making integrity difficult.
The Golden Rule
Integrity isn’t only acting in accordance with the golden rule: treat others how you would like to be treated. It also lies in the subtle connection to our desires, needs, and inner intuition. We can have integrity in our work, in our relationships, in the way we relate to the wider world.
Personally, I see integrity as a meta-value — it’s the value that holds others in place, that points to acting in a way that feels authentic and right, even when those decisions are difficult or uncomfortable to make.
Ethical principles: Examples of integrity
It’s worth keeping in mind that integrity isn’t something people have or don’t have. It’s a practice that can be refined and developed. Rather than a noun, integrity is a verb: it’s a way of acting in alignment with deepest, authentic morals and values.
That means each and everyone one of us, regardless of our background or self-image, has the ability to act with integrity. There are many more examples of acting with integrity than those included in the list below, but they are a good start when looking for examples of public integrity in daily life. They include:
- Never betraying someone’s trust
- Speaking authentically even if you know it might not be what others want to hear
- Not withholding or keeping secrets, but being honest
- Taking responsibility for mistakes and apologizing when necessary
- Honoring your values and needs rather than over compromising for others
- Choosing truth over the path of least resistance
- Standing up for what you believe is right
Integrity as practice
Integrity as a practice is more than intellectual. I believe most of us, when connected to deeper wisdom, are informed by inner guidance that lets us know what would be right for us in any given moment.
Sadly, we live in a society of inequality, ego-driven greed for power and status. All of these forces can disconnect us from a deeper sense of integrity, because the wisdom of integrity often surfaces as a calm whisper, which can be drowned out by the noise. There are fewer examples of integrity in public (and political) life than there should be.
What are the qualities of integrity?
The above examples should give you an idea of the qualities of integrity. As mentioned, integrity is a type of meta-value, in that, it acts as a reminder to adhere to other values.
The most obvious quality of integrity is honesty. You can’t have integrity without honesty. That involves being honest with others, but also being honest with ourselves. It’s surprisingly easy to fall into a trap of self-deceit by ignoring the inner voice that points out difficult truths.
In open communication with others, integrity is displayed with respect. That means listening patiently to others and following Stephan Covey’s golden advice: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Respect also surfaces as not attempting to force or control others, but putting aside our ego-based selfishness and being considerate of others’ needs.
Humility is another quality of integrity. One of the surest ways to act without integrity is to believe the ego’s hype, to become absorbed in our own wants and needs, to feel our own specialness. Humility is the ability to drop all preconceived ideas of our own importance, and to focus on finer qualities such as forgiveness, compassion, and empathy.
The delicate balance with integrity, however, is that someone who acts with integrity will both consider others’ needs, and act in accordance with their own truth. The real skill is knowing how to find this balance. After all, in life, there are many occasions where our own work and desires may affect others. People with integrity know how to honor this without causing harm, the perfect condition for success.
Lastly, responsibility is a strong quality of integrity. Integrity isn’t a form of perfection. Everyone makes mistakes. When acting with integrity, you might sometimes make the wrong call, cause upset, or fail in some way. This is all okay. Integrity as a verb, an act, means noticing where we’ve made mistakes and taking responsibility for them.
Moral and ethical principles: Why is integrity important?
“To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.”
– Douglas Adams
Integrity is a form of incorruptibility. It’s a way of acting with honor, and being responsible. A person with integrity isn’t swayed by the opinions of others or by groupthink, a psychological term given to the phenomena where people strive for consensus or harmony in a group. Coined by psychologist Irving L. Janis in 1972, groupthink has been shown to lead to irrational and dysfunctional decision-making.
As Zig Zigler said, “It is true that integrity alone won’t make you a leader, but without integrity, you will never be one.” Leaders often go against the grain. Integrity is important because, unfortunately, the societal systems as play cater to self-service. Many who rise to power do so for their own interests and needs, not with the will to help or support others.
For several reasons, I struggle to find many examples of integrity when it comes to global politics. Often, people in leadership positions who act with genuine integrity go down in history. That doesn’t mean leaders only exist in the White House or in CEO positions — all of us have an opportunity to lead by example, to embody integrity in every interaction we have.
Integrity means reminding ourselves of our highest principle, the highest good, and our own integrity of the innate human capacity to be compassionate, understanding, and moral, even in the face of hate, greed, or selfishness. It is to compromise when necessary, and to have a high standard in regards to your own reputation, regardless of the outcome.
Let’s return to the first definition of integrity: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values. Can you spot a potential problem? Many people act in accordance with their own personal system of values and beliefs. Someone who is narcissistic might strive for power and fame. A billionaire who desires infinite wealth might make decisions for personal gain while causing harm to thousands of employees.
When acting with personal integrity, self-awareness is key. That involves not only gaining clarity on your values, but knowing where they come from. Our personal values act as a compass, and personal integrity can clash with others’ demands, including professional integrity (the values and beliefs of work environments) or moral integrity.
An example might be someone who values the sanctity of all life, and lives a vegan lifestyle. It’s highly unlikely that a person will work in a professional setting that has a direct conflict with those values — such as working in a fast-food chain that sells beef burgers. The wider integrity of the food industry is up for debate. But personal integrity is noticing conflicts elsewhere, and acting in alignment with the inner compass.
Nietzsche famously proclaimed: “God is dead.” What he meant by this was that the structure of society had no space for God; religious systems were crumbling and their power and authority were challenged by science.
Breakthroughs, such as Newton’s law of physics, started to present a non-religious worldview where rationality and logic superseded a sense of spiritual connection.
As someone who was a self-proclaimed atheist for much of my adolescence and early adulthood, I totally understand the criticisms of organized, institutionalized religions. There are many, many instances of spiritual leaders acting without integrity.
However, the more I explore spirituality away from dogma, the more I realize that there are pools of wisdom in all religions — those that provide values and offer a framework for moral integrity.
Modern culture is in a crisis of values and moral principles. Organizations and consumer culture are gaining increasing amounts of power. Most of us struggle to understand our own values. I find great solace, though, in ancient wisdom that, to me, talks common sense. Distilled across multiple religions, these “spiritual values” consist of qualities such as:
It’s really hard to argue with those values!
Aligning Personal and Spiritual Values
For me, a big part of living a spiritual life is to do my best to align my personal values with these spiritual values. In other words, to align my personal integrity with moral integrity. If ever I’m in a conundrum or a tight spot, I lean into these values. For me, they act as a North Star in the direction I wish to grow.
Do I always get it right? Absolutely not. Do my personal values sometimes conflict with my spiritual values? You bet. But you can’t go wrong with taking time to consider the above, and setting an intention to develop moral integrity by consciously doing what you can to behave in ways that honor these values.
You might find, like I did, that these are common sense, and the closer you align with them, the more enjoyable life becomes.
4 Steps to Develop Integrity
So far, we’ve started to look at how you can develop integrity. Before we provide actionable steps or rules to preserve a more consistent wholeness, I’d like you to take a moment to connect to how it feels when you consider yourself living with integrity.
What does your heart say on the matter? If you’re doing some self-reflection or are on the path of self-development, striving to become a person of character, someone who courageously lives authentically, is one of the most difficult, but most rewarding, challenges.
Developing integrity is a mixture of inner work and outer behavior. Remember how honesty applies to ourselves, as well as others? It’s incredibly difficult to act with integrity when you’re unaware of what your own truth is!
The steps below include a mixture of inner work, to gain clarity, and guidance on turning this into behaviour. And if you’re in need of a little bit of extra help? Try these courage quotes.
1. Connect to your values
If you don’t consciously work on understanding what your values are, they will be chosen for you. Not in a formal way, of course. But the values of our family, our community, society, our peers, or the company we work for can be internalized and agreed with on an unconscious level.
Connecting to your values is a case of digging below the surface, taking time for self-reflection, and gaining clarity on what’s meaningful to you. Yes, values can be intellectual. But many are felt on a heart level.
That might be they aren’t easy to define in one word or even one sentence. Values can be a feeling, such as compassion, or they might be a phrase unique to you, for example, What Would Jesus Do? If that phrase is one of your key values, feel free to lower your standards slightly.
2. Trust your gut
Our minds can come up with all sorts of stories about the way we should be. This works both ways; sometimes we minimize our desire to act with integrity, to shut down the impulse to say or do a certain thing. At others, our minds might encourage us to act without integrity. That’s where it’s important to tune into your gut feeling.
Ask yourself: what do I feel when I act without integrity? What do I feel when I act with integrity? Often, we’re afraid to speak our truth or set boundaries that feel right for us. Or the fear of being judged or disliked encourages us to go along with the crowd. But, mostly, when these truths are expressed, we’re instantly rewarded with a sense of fulfillment. And in my experience, the result is never as bad as the worst-case scenario the mind can present.
3. Take full responsibility
It’s easy to get stuck in blame and take no accountability for the direction of our lives. Empowerment, though, and taking steps towards a life of purpose and character, requires taking full personal responsibility. That’s far, far different from self-blame, and it does require the self-awareness to discern when to acknowledge fault, when to apologize, when to express a boundary.
Signs you aren’t taking responsibility include all forms of projection: you might find yourself in a loop, moaning about other people, or your life situations. When it comes to integrity, Stoicism is such a rich source of wisdom. As Epictetus said:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then, do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”
This quote is an actionable step in itself. Taking full responsibility means knowing what you can control, having an accurate view of your role and inner perspective, and taking action when necessary. Above all else, integrity requires being accountable for aligning your words and actions with your own personal truth.
4. Commit to maintaining integrity
As mentioned above, integrity is a verb. A person of integrity develops moral character by making the right choices, over and over.
Rather than a checklist, maintaining integrity is more like riding a bicycle. In the beginning, it might be difficult, but when you get the right technique, it feels effortless. However, to remain stationary on two wheels, you constantly make intuitive adjustments to maintain balance.
The more you act in accordance with your truth, the easier it becomes. But it’s a daily commitment. And, when you do slip up, remember not to be harsh on yourself! There’s room for compassion. No one can act with 100 percent integrity, 100 percent of the time. Have patience, do the best you can, and be firm but fair when you slip up.
And start now. Make the declaration to yourself, right now, to be committed to doing your best to act with integrity every single day. The world will thank you for it.