Integrity – Noun; Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code; the state of being unimpaired; soundness; the quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness.

The date is January 16, 2009. The day after US Airways Flight 1549 pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger of Danville, CA, maneuvered his crowded passenger jet over New York City and ditched it in the Hudson River – successfully. All 155 passengers and crew are safe and miraculously escaped major injury – just bumps and bruises really. National media is abuzz with reports and first-hand interviews with passengers, now all safe, warm and dry, along with their rescuers and safety experts describing the ordeal. NBC dubbed the accident “Miracle on the Hudson”.

Pause now. Think about your values as if you had to list and describe them. What are your core values? If you are like most individuals and organizations Integrity shows up on your list of values. But what does it mean, this word, ‘integrity’ (perhaps the ultimate virtue)? What does it mean to you? How does your value for integrity show up for others daily? How is it you developed your integrity? How might you further develop this quality? Why does it matter?

For most of us, integrity means something like “doing what you say you will do”, or “how you act when no one is looking”. These are good tests of integrity, but don not really explain how one develops integrity. Structural integrity for a building is defined as “uncompromised ability to safely resist the required loads”. Structural integrity of a person could be defined as “uncompromised ability to appropriately resist challenges to virtue”. How do we develop this steadfast adherence to a strict moral code, this ‘sound’ response to difficult circumstances?

Like most things we do well, integrity comes from practice. In fact, the proper manner with which to refer to the quality of integrity as a human value would be “to practice integrity”. A person speaks and acts with integrity out of practice. Integrity is the result of preparation and choice, when one has lived long enough to have recognized one’s own innate capacity to act on whim, caprice or selfishness rather than deeply-held principle. Integrity comes from training and increases with the quality, length and adherence to the intent of that training. Integrity follows solid neural pathways, developed over time, that stimulate certain attitudes and habits, which produce seemingly instinctual right actions. But these actions are not based on animal instinct; right actions result from human desire and practice.

My favorite value-based definition of leadership is “authentic self-expression that adds value through relationships”. This includes relationships to both people and events. When self-expression begins to consistently add value over time, through every human encounter, through every decision and through every split-second reaction to events, then you have integrity.

Aspire to have integrity: practice discerning what is right, saying that you will do right, how and why you will do right, and doing so whether or not someone else is paying attention.

You can bet there are at least 154 people in this world who are thankful for the value Chesley Sullenberger has added through their brief relationships. What do “Sully” Sullenberger and Flight 1549 have to do with integrity? Sullenberger is reportedly an U.S. Air Force Academy grad who flew F-4 fighter planes in the 1970s while in the Air Force. He started flying commercial jets in the 1980s. “He is about performing that airplane to the exact precision to which it is made,” says the wife of her hero-husband. In addition to working for US Airways, he runs a safety consulting firm focused on the psychology of keeping airline crews functioning in the face of crisis. He has been an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. I understand he is also certified to fly gliders – skills that surely helped land an Airbus A320 with both engines on fire in a controlled descent on a nearly frozen river rather than in the middle of a neighborhood of one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

Instinct didn’t take over for Sullenberger as he steered his jet toward those icy Hudson waters, practice kicked in – the practice of integrity. This is a man who decided earlier in life that safety and human lives were important enough to him that he would dedicate himself to preserving those ends. He trained, he studied, he learned day after day, year after year with those ends in mind. What once began as a pilot’s tenuous first flight, over the course of 40 years of practice became unconscious competence – the right attitudes, habits, decisions, actions and demeanor to save lives in a crisis.

Reflections to inspire personal growth in Integrity (with your learning partner)

How would your life be different if you were to practice integrity with greater intent and consistency? What can you do daily to increase your integrity? What is your personal code of ethics; what must you change to demonstrate them more fully? Find an accountability partner or hire a coach to help you practice integrity and take these actions:

  • Integrity is the glue that binds your other virtues. What are your other core values? Why these?
  • How do these values, together, define who you are, how you think and act, and how you are viewed by others?
  • What words and behaviors do other people observe of you daily that demonstrate your values?
  • What purpose would you have your life lead toward that you are willing to practice day after day, year after year, to be prepared for the chance event that may provide the ultimate test of your Integrity?
  • What specific attitudes, habits and behaviors must you practice consistently to become the person of Integrity you aspire to be?
  • Describe an experience or event when you were at your personal best and demonstrated Integrity.
  • Describe a current situation in your life that, in your heart, you could apply the same level of Integrity as you did in your example above.
  • Make plans to touch base with your learning partner in the next month about how you each are practicing Integrity. Hold each other accountable.

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