“To be honest is to be real, genuine, authentic, and bona fide. To be dishonest is to be partly feigned, forged, fake, or fictitious. Honesty expresses both self-respect and respect for others. Dishonesty fully respects neither oneself nor others. Honesty imbues lives with openness, reliability, and candor; it expresses a disposition to live in the light. Dishonesty seeks shade, cover, or concealment. It is a disposition to live partly in the dark.” — William J. Bennett, The Book of Virtues
Seven-year-old first baseman, Tanner Munsey, fielded a ground ball and tried to tag a runner going from first to second base. The umpire, Laura Benson, called the runner out, but young Tanner immediately ran to her side and said, “Ma’am, I didn’t tag the runner.” Umpire Benson reversed herself, sent the runner to second base, and Tanner’s coach gave him the game ball for his honesty. Two weeks later, Laura Benson was again the umpire and Tanner was playing shortstop when a similar play occurred. This time Benson ruled that Tanner had missed the tag on a runner going to third base, and she called the runner safe. Tanner looked at Benson and, without saying a word, tossed the ball to the catcher and returned to his position. Benson sensed something was wrong. “Did you tag the runner?” she asked Tanner. “Yes,” he replied. Benson then called the runner out. The opposing coaches protested until she explained what had happened two weeks earlier. “If a kid is that honest,” she said, “I have to give it to him.”
Honesty and integrity are key ingredients in developing trust. Trust is a key element in establishing credibility. Our credibility is at the center of our ability to influence others and provide strong leadership. In our leadership development work we often ask participants to list the qualities of the most effective leaders they have experienced in their family, school, community, social, or organizational lives. Words like sincere, truthful, trustworthy, reliable, principled, and genuine are usually on the list. These characteristics are the hallmarks of strong leaders.
There’s lots of evidence to support author Lance Secretan‘s belief that “we are suffering from truth decay.” In a financial management column on taking a loan to invest more money in mutual funds, a former politician advised, “if your real estate falls in value to the point where the home-equity loan is greater than the worth of your house, you can always take a walk. Then it’s the bank’s problem.” How’s that for honesty and integrity? Does he sound like someone you could trust and believe? Little wonder his party was tossed out of office at the next election amid scandals and crooked deals (they showed that “political principles” really was an oxymoron). Every day we hear about, or personally experience, broken promises, cheating, “shaving the truth,” cutting corners, or failing to follow through. That’s why Mark Twain declared that “truth is more of a stranger than fiction.” He felt that many people regard truth as their most valuable possession and this explained why they were most economical in its use. He advised us to “always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Winston Churchill adds, “people occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”
Honesty and integrity is a given in most conversations about leadership values. But some people seem to feel it’s something you can slip on and off like clothing. They will speak of personal, professional, or business behaviors as if different suits of honesty are put on according to the situation. This shows “doing honesty” rather than being honest. It’s no more than putting on an honest act. People quickly see through it and reduce us to our lowest level of honesty and integrity — our dirtiest clothes. Even more importantly — which is the real me? How can changeable honesty ring true to me?
Our true character is often revealed by fear and greed. In times of fear we often face great difficulty and disaster. Or we might have huge opportunities for financial, career, power, or other big gains. How we deal with both extremes when the stakes are high reveals our true selves. The choices we make during those intense moments of truth exposes the depth of our character. Do we “do our honesty and integrity thing” when its convenient or just when we think others are watching? Or are we an honest being who’s eventually found out?
Parents and even managers will sometimes say, “don’t let me catch you doing that again.” This often leads to lively games of “catch me if you can.” But honesty and integrity are developed from the inside out. Abraham Lincoln explained it well in reflecting on his approach, “I do the best I know how, the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing it to the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me will not amount to anything. If the end brings me out all wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” Ringing true to me means going beyond just what I say or do. It involves listening to what my inner voice tells me about how I feel about what I’ve said or done.
One way to explore our inner level of true honesty and integrity is look at how much we trust others. Since we see the world as we are, any feelings that people are basically dishonest and can’t be trusted may be revealing more about me than them. One of the hazards of lying is not just that people wouldn’t believe us, it’s also that we can’t believe anyone else.