If it’s Legal Is it Right? The Five Pillars of Integrity in Business

Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right. And conversely, some things that are right aren’t legal. Clearly, we don’t need a bookshelf full of legal tomes to tell us how to behave. We know in our hearts when we’ve acted ethically and with integrity, and so do our clients.

For example, I watched Hillary Clinton’s recent press conference, where the presumed presidential candidate vigorously defended her (highly questionable) use of private email for government business while Secretary of State. I was struck by how often politicians split hairs and say they didn’t do anything wrong because what they did was completely legal. (This is not about being for or against Mrs. Clinton as a candidate—her email kerfuffle is simply a good and very recent illustration of my point).

When a public figure leaves no doubt about doing the right thing, it’s more than just refreshing—it almost makes us gasp. This happened in the midst of the Watergate scandal in 1973.

As the presidential crisis unfolded in October, 1973, special prosecutor Archibald Cox issued a subpoena to President Richard Nixon. He was asking for copies of White House tape recordings that might contain evidence about the break-in at the Watergate hotel that had happened during the prior year. Incensed and under attack, Nixon ordered his Attorney General, Elliott Richardson, to fire Cox on Saturday night, October 19th.

Richardson was a man of immense integrity. He refused to fire the special prosecutor. Nixon then fired Richardson himself and ordered his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused to comply, and was also fired by Nixon. Finally, Nixon got Solicitor General Robert Bork to do the dirty deed.  Shortly afterwards a federal judge ruled that the firing was illegal. A new prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was appointed to fill the vacated position. The incident became a catalyst that led to a collapse of public support for Nixon and his eventual impeachment.

Phew…when was the last time a major government figure took that kind of a stand, and willingly accepted the consequences—that is, losing their job? Later, Richardson wrote, “The more I thought about it, the clearer it seemed to me that public confidence in the investigation would depend on its being independent not only in fact, but in appearance.” In other words, it’s as important to avoid the appearance of impropriety as impropriety itself.

In her press conference last week, Hillary Clinton stated testily that “I fully complied with every rule that I was governed by,” adding “the laws and regulations” at the time allowed her to use private email. Yet every reporter, the public, and even many democratic politicians were dismayed (even if privately so) at the obvious dissonance of her remarks. Conducting all of your official business as Secretary of State on a private email server—and refusing or stonewalling Freedom of Information Act disclosure requests for years, which is apparently what happened—just doesn’t seem right. It may be legal, but the average person can sense that it wasn’t the right thing to do. It was an obvious attempt to control her communications and privacy well beyond what a Secretary of State is allowed to do, at least according to State Department regulations.

The dissonance was immeasurably amplified by being told—repeatedly—that what was clearly not right was actually just fine.

It’s almost a rule of thumb that the more you protest about the correctness of something that is sketchy, the more dishonest you seem.

Based on many years of research that I’ve done with top executives, I’ve developed an expanded definition of integrity that has five dimensions. When you fulfill all of these, you project the kind of rock-solid trustworthiness that is the foundation of long-term client relationships.

Trusted advisors have great integrity. They exhibit:

  1. Consistent adherence to a set of values and beliefs. This is the literal definition of integrity, which comes from the word “integer,” meaning a whole number. When you have integrity, there is a “wholeness” about you—you adhere to a set of firm principles.
  2. Honesty. Do you stretch the truth—or even lie? (Have you heard of  “lying by omission?”). Or are you always honest and straightforward.
  3. Reliability. Can clients depend on you? When you say you’ll do something, do you always follow through?
  4. Consistency. Are you the same person, all the time? Is the quality of your work consistent? Is your behavior consistent? One of my clients, for example, once fired a consultant who was brilliant and treated him royally, but was rude to support staff at the company.
  5. Discretion. This one is interesting, and many CEOs have mentioned it to me. Do you keep rock-solid confidences? Or do you use information that clients give you to gain power or political advantage?

Ironically, you often boost your perceived and actual integrity when you admit to a mistake. A CEO gave me this example, which is a case-in-point:

“A law firm we use made a serious mistake. However, it was an error that we would not have noticed until probably years later—if at all. When they discovered what had happened, they immediately brought it to our attention. They probably thought we’d fire them. But actually, I trusted them more, not less, because of that incident. Now I know they will always be forthcoming with us and put our interests first, even if to do so hurts them.”

No one has perfect integrity. In fact, we all probably fail to live up to, on a daily basis, at least one or more of the five dimensions I set out above. The question is: Are someone’s lapses a continuing pattern? Do they struggle with them or do they glibly justify their actions with no apparent remorse or self-doubt? Is there ever repentance or acknowledgement of an error?

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