Integrity And Leadership

IN EARLY 13th CENTURY FRANCE, Paris and the lands under the direct rule of the king were in a bad way. The powerful position of Provost of Paris was always given to the highest bidder, and this had led to blatant corruption, a breakdown in the criminal justice system, social anarchy, and an exodus of unhappy peasants and middle-class citizens. The economic consequences were disastrous. Then Louis IX came to the throne.

He stopped the sale of the provost’s position and made sure that men of ability and character were appointed to all official posts. Justice was made accessible to rich and poor alike, and those who broke the law were punished regardless of social status. Unreasonable taxes were removed, and the vibrancy of economic life was restored. Within a short time, people started returning to Paris and it grew rapidly to become the foremost city in France.

That simple example reveals the inextricable link between integrity and leadership. Time and again, history shows that each is the measure and condition of the other.

Integrity is a word widely used but narrowly understood. Most people think of it as honesty, being as good as your word.

Integrity is a word widely used but narrowly understood. Most people think of it as honesty, being as good as your word. Certainly, truthfulness is an aspect of integrity, but it only arises as a consequence of what integrity actually is. To integrate is to assimilate or to make something a fully functional part of the whole, while disintegrate means to break up, collapse, or fall apart. So integrity is unity, wholeness, completeness, harmony, being everything someone or something is meant to be. It means having no inconsistencies or contradictions.

Consider the humble banjo – each part, the body, the vellum, the neck, the tuning pegs, the strings, must function properly for the instrument to do what it is supposed to do. Any malfunction detracts from its integrity. And the same is true of the banjo player – being tone-deaf, injured, unpracticed, drunk, or simply uncooperative, would compromise his integrity in that role, and the integrity of any group he was part of would be similarly undermined.

So integrity is ultimately fulfillment of the promise implicit in the name we give to things. If I was a lawyer, I would have to fulfill the promise implicit in that term by having the necessary qualifications, the on-going personal development, the high professional standards, the utmost respect for the law and the community I serve, and so on. Any corruption or distortion of those qualifications would undermine my integrity as a lawyer.

The moral dimension of integrity emerges naturally from this understanding. Human beings, as Aristotle said, are rational animals. The purpose of rational minds is to know truth, and we know the truth and the goodness of things by knowing their meaning and purpose. We know, for example, that it is not good for a banjo to be used as a baseball bat. And we know, in the case of human beings, that it is not good for a person to be used as a slave or to be destroyed by drugs. We are the only animals that can be held morally accountable for what we do because through intellect we know truth and goodness, and free will lets us choose between true and false, and good and evil.

Moreover, we are social animals who only find fulfillment in relationships with other people – so our integrity demands that we seek harmony rather than discord among fellow human beings. Philosopher Alasdair McIntyre emphasizes that we are “dependent, rational animals” who develop self-knowledge only through relationships. This makes honesty indispensible in ensuring we avoid self-deception and the many psychological deformities that flow from it.

Of course, the lie is at the heart of human misery and is inextricably bound up with the violence endemic in society. That is why honesty is so important an aspect of integrity.

Sadly, the lack of integrity, both personal and corporate, in the contemporary world is a clear sign of an absence of leadership. But, again, we need to define our terms, and the definition of leadership is also problematic. Many academics suggest that there is no clear definition of leadership, but how on earth can they then discuss it, or issue proclamations on how to practice it? We all recognize leadership when we see it, and we define the reality, not some convenient personal fancy.

Leadership arose with the need for justice, which itself means much more than the narrow legal concept the word evokes in most people’s minds. And for all the well-meaning efforts of modern thinkers like John Rawls, the definition of justice provided by Plato remains the most cogent. Justice is giving each person what is due to him or her.

Now despite the cacophony of cant from ideologues, what is due to each person is less controversial than many suppose. Classical philosophy and modern science agree that human fulfillment requires freedom to be the best one can be, education in the sense of a constantly expanding knowledge of the world and the growth of virtuous character, security of person and possessions, and the support of benevolent relationships and community.

Justice in this sense would promote a society in which all people were inspired and enabled to achieve their full potential, working in harmony to achieve the best for the whole community. And isn’t this precisely what leaders should strive for in, say, a football team, an orchestra, or the workplace? Any stifling of potential in an individual amounts to degrading the potential of the group, the company, or the nation.

This recalls the ancient and enduring conundrum of the One and the Many. Which takes precedence – the individual or the group? Integrity and justice emphasize the natural symbiosis. The flourishing of the one is dependent on the flourishing of the many, just as the flourishing of the many depends on the flourishing of the one.

Interestingly, our understanding of justice aligns with our definition of integrity. And together, integrity and justice make plain what leadership is – inspiring people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all. Managers and politicians who reject this, preferring the Machiavellian expedients of intimidation, deceit, and exploitation are not leaders, but misleaders, people of the lie, the enemies of integrity and justice.

Inspiring people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all demands, by definition, vision, and virtue in a leader. Vision looks to a better future in which the good of all is achieved, while virtue – practical wisdom, courage, self-control, justice, faith, hope, and love – equips the leader for the challenge.

In the final analysis, integrity and leadership are indeed inseparable; in fact, leadership is integrity in action, upholding justice, inspiring harmony, seeking fulfillment – for all people, because each and every one of us is potential in search of fulfillment.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Outstanding lesson here.
    Anyway I would adde that The character is a quality of the person that says a lot about its values, the way in which it might act in certain circumstances and how it might drive other people, when it is put in a position of power. The character has a close relationship with integrity. If the character is “who we are”, integrity is “what we do.” T The respect of which must enjoy leadership requires that the ethics of an individual is indisputable. So, character is what can make the difference between one who merely know the rules of the leadership and the one who knows to put them into practice in everyday life. It encloses the personal qualities that give strength and vigor to the actions of a person. It implies show oneself serenely firm in what one believes, but at the same time available to listen to any advice and suggestions and willing to change his mind if needed.

  2. Integrity is a fundamental “ingredient” of leadership. The leader shows his integrity when he has character, is competent and is consistent within a group, an institution, an organization, a company, an association, a team, etc., by introducing rules and standards which are approved by the other, and it is transparent and delivers on its promises both inside and outside. Consolidating his credibility and personality, the leader reinforces consequently also his level of influence.
    While other values can have nuances more or less positive, integrity is an absolute value that cannot be overridden or show hesitation which would transform it immediately in a lack of integrity, an offense to the truth. The person decides to be undamaged and is constantly aiming integrity as a daily conquest. All persons of integrity can become leaders. The spirit of an organization is shaped by its leader and all want to be led by people who prove to be such. The many business leaders with whom I have had the opportunity to work, that have been successful for a long time through the crises and changes, were shown to have this characteristic profile.

  3. Just a few hours ago I was writing about Executive Presence to be included into a course module. Integrity is not something you can practice. You just have it. But, Integrity can be built if people practice certain things. Things such as —

    1. Building focus (do one thing at a time extremely well)
    2. Reclaiming focus (putting you back on your game)
    3. Demonstrating gratitude (showing people you care)
    4. Belly breathing (reduces fear and anxiety)

    All of these is a foundation to build integrity.

    • Thank you Massimo – there are many people who want to see political and business leaders address these issues, and I guess we all have a part to play.

    • Thank you Andre. I agree with you. I might be wrong, – who am I to claim
      to know the absolute truth? But I think that we are living in a world
      where VALUES went down the drain. I think people is consciously or
      unconsciously unhappy with the current situation. That’s why, I think,
      lots of people today are not satisfied unless they are masters of their
      own life, their destiny, and their future. Yes… fully agree with
      you… “The flourishing of the one is dependent on the flourishing of
      the many,…” A chronic “justice & values” deficit
      everywhere crushes societies and nations. Machiavellian expedients
      reign supreme. I think this’s happening ’cause there’re no True Leaders,
      and no values…and Human Beings are not at the top of the agenda
      anymore. Yes again Andre, we all have (or should have) a part to play…
      It is for that that I stand. Thank you.