Integrity is Not Only "Nice to Have"

The unfolding FIFA scandal raises questions explored in many of my leadership programs:

  • What is the role of integrity in leadership?
  • Is integrity simply “nice to have” but not essential to sustained and effective leadership?
  • Maybe integrity actually interferes with business success?
  • What is integrity, anyway?

These are universal questions transcending the FIFA scandal, which I hope becomes a cautionary tale for leaders in many industries.

I take the strong position that integrity is a key component of sustainable leadership. It’s not only “nice to have.” It’s also a practical attribute that enables you to:

  • Attract quality people and keep them over time.
  • Maintain a highly motivated workforce.
  • Inspire integrity and ethical behavior in those you interact with.
  • Minimize disruptive disasters that befall individuals, teams, organizations and industries when corruption comes to light—which it often does—creating a ripple of unanticipated consequences.

All of these advantages translate into long term success of your chosen endeavors. Plus, you never run the risk of going to jail. Who wouldn’t want that?

After listening to an NPR story about one of the companies involved in the FIFA scandal, I reflected on the mental models that might justify decades of corruption by those implicated. 

In my imagination, I’m having a coaching session with Aaron Davidson, U.S. president of Traffic Sports USA. This is a sports marketing company that has allegedly been bribing soccer officials in order to lock in big contracts. Davidson has been indicted on serious charges: racketeering, conspiracy, wire fraud, and several other charges.

In this imaginary session, we’re meeting in his office two years before the corruption comes to light. Our session is private so he’s willing to openly share his thinking with me.

“What keeps me up at night is that I won’t be able to bring in the contracts if I don’t do what my competitors do. I won’t keep my job, maintain my reputation if I don’t do this.”

“I’ve been doing this for years and not once have I been caught.”

“Sure I know it’s wrong. And it’s even illegal*. But everybody does it. What am I supposed to do?”

“What do you think I should do, coach?”

Thankfully, as a coach my job is not to give him advice. It’s to help him come up with his own answers.

The first thing that comes to mind is a saying attributed to Dwight Moody.  “Aaron, integrity is who you are in the dark. Who do you want to be going forward?”

And if that doesn’t cause him to reflect on his actions, maybe I’ll add, “Aaron, do you want to spend the next twenty years in an orange jumpsuit? Because if you don’t change the way you’re thinking and acting, that’s what’s in store for you.”

 *According to the NPR article, he actually did say this.