Brad Keywell

Being “In Integrity” with Yourself and Others

I first learned about integrity from my parents, often in reaction to testing the rules — in particular, I remembered “borrowing” something from home and taking it into my third-grade classroom for show-and-tell, mistakenly leaving it at school, and then claiming ignorance of its whereabouts.

Integrity was about being truthful no matter what. So, when I breached that truth and trust, the consequence was clear and swift — a level of disappointment and anger delivered in a way that seared the lesson in my soul.

Testing the boundaries of integrity led me to understand the solid foundation created by not testing it! And the die of integrity was ultimately cast through my appreciation of the rock-solid reliability of my parents’ word, anchored in their integrity. They demonstrated an all-the-time, always-on, in-all-circumstances orientation to integrity, an orientation that I now hold as my own. I view integrity as a direction in a moral compass that is critical in navigating a good life.

In college, I was exposed to Warren Buffett and his “Wall Street Journal Test” — a simple question he asks himself routinely: Would I be comfortable if my taking this action were on the front page of the Wall Street Journal? In one of Buffett’s shareholder letters, he added a filter to the test, asking, “What if your mother opened the paper to see your name in an unflattering light? Would you be comfortable with that?” My version of this is the pillow test, a riff on the proverb, “There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience,” otherwise captured by the scholar Alfred Korzybski when he said, “God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won't.”

As I began navigating the world of starting and growing companies, my mentor Sam Zell talked to me often about the importance of “a good name,” a concept going as far back as the Bible. Earning a good name was a commitment to prioritize integrity above wealth or fame, an orientation that a good name earned through integrity is the most important legacy we can leave. While Sam is one of the greatest investors of all time, the formula for Sam’s unwavering integrity was described nicely by Henry David Thoreau: “Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”

Before I end this reflection on integrity, allow me to explore some of its nuances:

First: The “integrity” of being honest, telling the truth, dealing squarely with others, and being accurate in our words — this is primarily what I’ve explored above.

Second: “Living in integrity,” the concept that you do as you say and say what you do — I call this a whole and undivided life, in which your integrity allows you to live with clarity in each moment (rather than the distraction and sludge that comes from “multiple versions of the truth” and saying one thing to one person and another thing to others). The word “integrity” is derived from the Latin word “integer” which means whole and complete, thus the requisite inner sense of “wholeness” and consistency of character that comes from living in integrity.

Finally: The objective of “being in integrity” with each other — an aspiration that we always act with integrity by reliably keeping agreements with each other and always do what we say we will do (so that those who rely on us can count on us). This integrity speaks to trust — it’s about how trustworthy we are in relationships.

To this last flavor of integrity, I think we’d all admit that we sometimes don’t deliver at the time we promised, don’t do all that we said we would, or don’t show up at the agreed-upon time. The consequence is that we compromise the foundation of reliable integrity that allows us to perform on our teams as best we could, eroding the trust that others give us as well as our trust in them.

What to do when we do something that takes us “out of integrity” with a teammate? The work I’ve done in conscious leadership has reinforced my belief in the value of awareness.  By being aware, we can stop in the moment, acknowledge a breach in trust, apologize, take accountability for the consequences, and commit to more reliably earn (and rebuild) trust in the future. Ideally, going “out of integrity” is a rare occurrence. But on the rare occasions, an opportunity arises — an opportunity to demonstrate humility and authenticity, an opportunity to put the interests of others ahead of your own, acknowledge the importance of their trust in you, and sincerely commit to remedy the broken trust.

While not always easy, the quest to be “in integrity” with each other, both in business and life, has fortified our personal foundations. Day by day, week by week, month by month — it is critical to our ability to adjust and gain balance as we navigate sometimes-uncertain and difficult-to-navigate terrain.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Character is higher than intellect.” Integrity occupies a similarly elevated place, guiding us on our journey every day and in every way.


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© Brad Keywell 2021