The Integrity Of Leadership – How The Mighty Have Fallen

June 4, 2019 Chris Pearse

1,835 views Nov 27, 2018, 02:02am

Chris Pearse Contributor I write about the realities and challenges of leadership.

Agassiz Statue

Integrity soundness, wholeness, completeness

Integrity is often described as:

Doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

Dubiously attributed to C.S. Lewis – presumably when no one was watching – the maxim proves very popular on social media.

The quote – whoever said it first – elegantly exposes perhaps the principal reason why true integrity is so elusive, at least in others, if not in ourselves. More on that later…

In terms of its impact on leadership, Dwight D. Eisenhower was unequivocal:

The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.

But before we explore the nature of integrity let us first look at examples of lack of integrity in leaders and some of the factors at play:

Robert Maxwell – the media baron who stole £440m from company pension funds, discovered after his death in 1991.

Steve Smith – Australian cricket captain admitted complicity in ball-tampering during a tour of South Africa this year, and was banned for 12 months.

Bill Clinton – denied and then subsequently admitted a relationship that was ‘not appropriate’ and was impeached.

Nick Leeson – a derivatives broker who made fraudulent, unauthorised and speculative trades, that led directly to the 1995 collapse of Barings Bank, and a prison sentence.

The common thread running through all of these cases is a foundation of orthodoxy, success and integrity. Not one of these culprits, as far as is known, commenced their careers with intent to derive an advantage outside the law or generally accepted ethical codes of conduct.

Each perpetrator fell foul of at least one of the seven deadly sins: Maxwell, Greed; Smith, Envy; Clinton, Lust; Leeson, Pride.

But just how did successful exemplars of leadership succumb to falling off their pedestals in these spectacular ways?


We can throw some light on this by considering the word corrupt, which as an antithesis to integrity, brings a sense of breaking or tearing.

Bill Clinton was admired for his ability, post impeachment, to maintain an unchanged public persona. As George Plimpton put it:

This is a man who is able to stand and give a speech and not have you-know-who popping up in the back of his head.

In psychological terms, this is the use of compartmentalisation as a ‘subconscious psychological defence mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.’

At this point, the mechanics of corruption begin to clarify. As soon as any barrier is erected that separates two parts of a whole, integrity is compromised. And if those parts are forcibly separated as an antidote to the pain of cognitive dissonance, then a break or tear occurs which is the basis of corruption. In practice this means that parts of our mental worlds become dissociated from the whole and no longer fall within the ambit of our faculties of discrimination. If the devolution continues, one’s psychological health can be compromised.

Significantly, corruption in these terms is an internal process, not attributable to external influences.

However appealing our original definition of integrity may be, it is fundamentally flawed: someone is always watching. That someone is you and you are, in reality, the only meaningful qualifier of what you do. As soon as we begin to submit to external points of reference, yet again, we compromise our integrity.

So how do we strengthen our integrity and avoid the corruption that can fell the mighty?

Firstly we need to be very clear that our sense of what is right and what is not can only come from ourselves and no one else. Any referral to an external source of moral discrimination is an abnegation of responsibility that will inevitably lead to the kind of errors of judgement outlined above.

We have to refine and sensitise our own internal faculties through systematically looking inwards and exploring our inner dimensions and dynamics. This requires a daily commitment, for life. One such system is Yoga which, beyond the physical movements of Hatha Yoga, means Union. Only through a discipline of this kind can we maintain integrity and stave off the insidious corruption that can have such dramatic consequences.

No surprise perhaps that Shakespeare said it best through Polonius in Hamlet:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

I help leaders accelerate their development and impact through a deepened awareness of our inner dynamics – the belief systems and emotions that shape our leadership. Discover more here…

Chris Pearse

Chris Pearse Contributor

I am an Executive Coach to leaders across diverse sectors including FTSE100s and SMEs. I am also an Interim CEO.