Why integrity is more important than ever

Marvin RickabaughBy Marvin Rickabaugh
San Antonio Region President, Frost Bank

Frost BankThese days, you hear a lot of people talking about the virtue of integrity. I just wish we could see more of it in the world.

Granted, there are plenty of individuals and businesses that embrace strong principles—trust, honesty, loyalty—and won’t let money, power, influence or anything else keep them from doing the right thing.

Trouble is, they don’t get the press that some others get when they cut ethical corners, promise one thing and do another, or throw their values out the window to get through tough times or to gain an advantage over others. How many times have we seen a major corporation caught in the glare of the public eye for cheating its shareholders and customers? Or, a deceitful local tradesperson captured on camera callously taking advantage of a trusting customer’s goodwill?

I often wonder why so many struggle—often so publicly—with the notion of integrity these days.

Maybe it’s because the word has been thrown around too carelessly or misused so often that it either means nothing anymore or it’s deeply misunderstood. Maybe it’s because some have forgotten that integrity is tightly woven into strong and healthy personal relationships and provides the essential foundation for productive and successful business dealings.

Sticking to the code
Whatever the reason, it’s worth looking back at the word’s origins for clues to understanding what integrity could look like, should look like in real life. The word “integrity” stems from the Latin adjective integer which means whole or complete. In our context, integrity is an inner sense of wholeness coming from qualities such as honesty, loyalty, trust and consistency of character. So we might consider that others “have integrity” if they act according to the values, beliefs and principles—the moral code—they claim to hold.

By its very definition, integrity suggests an either-or quality. You can’t have partial, sometimes, sort of integrity. You either stick to the code and you have integrity—or you don’t. It’s just that simple.

At Frost, we talk a lot about what it means to act in ways that demonstrate our integrity as we interact with our customers, our communities and each other. In fact, our little black book aptly named What We Believe, a brief but memorable collection of our company’s beliefs, includes what I think is a strong working definition of integrity: “We believe in doing what’s right, even when no one is looking.” There’s that idea of sticking to the code again.

Putting integrity into action
We can define it, analyze it and look at it from every angle, but in the end what matters is putting integrity into action. I think that boils down to two simple steps.

The first is to establish what your code of ethics is. If you have a mission statement for your organization and have stated values that you believe in to support it, that’s a good place to begin. If you have employees, talk to them about your organization’s values. Make sure everyone understands what those are and how they translate to everyday actions—even when it might be easier, faster, cheaper or more interesting to do something else.

And the second step? Once you’ve established and communicated the code, don’t just put it on a shelf—embrace it and abide by it.

I’m not saying this is always easy. There are almost certainly going to be instances when it’s more painful to tell the truth than to cover it up and fix things later, when it’s harder to walk away from a lucrative but questionable business deal than to bend your principles “just this once,” when it costs more to stay loyal to good clients than to take advantage of them.

It takes work and dedication. As with any good business plan, integrity is all about the execution. You don’t just wake up one day and have integrity. It’s something you have to focus on every day. You might stumble and make mistakes, but you’ll also get better as you learn from your missteps. This is about leading by word and example.

One thing is certain: integrity pays off in the end. It enables your business to build an enviable reputation that shines among the rest, makes employees proud to work for your company, keeps customers—who will certainly notice the difference between you and your less-principled competitors—confident and happy to be doing business with you, loyal to your brand and willing to sing your praises to others.

What I know about integrity these days is this: With so much dishonesty, deceit, and outright wrongdoing in the world today, we all yearn for integrity in human relationships, business transactions and government dealings.

Is there anything that is really more important than your integrity? I can’t think of it.