Oh, how easily we can veer off the path of integrity.

Oh, how easily we can veer off the path of integrity.

Earlier this week I had the rather odd experience of learning that one of my Forbes columns had been plagiarized…  by a school principal.  While I must admit to feeling a bit flattered that an educator – whose grammar is likely far superior to my own – found my words worth copying as her own, I also found myself wishing that she had taken time to read the chapter in Stop Playing Safe about the importance of building our career, and life, on a solid foundation of integrity.  Had she heeded it’s advice, it would have spared her enormous damage to her career and reputation, as well as many years of hard work ahead to rebuild it, if she ever can.

Of course it might seem particularly ironic for an educator (and an award winning one at that) to commit such a crime. No doubt she often lectured her students on the importance of honesty and character, and the wrongs of deception and fraud. Yet, as much as we may like to righteously condemn her for doing something that violated her own principles so squarely, it should also serve as a reminder about how easy it can be to cross the line between right and wrong, and act in ways that we know aren’t right and would dread others to know about.

Athletes, educators, corporate heavyweights, religious ministers – none of us are immune to the temptation to surrender self-respect for self-interest. All of  us
must remain vigilant  about whether we are stepping into a slippery grey zone that is often hard to retreat from. Integrity doesn’t come in shades of grey. Living and leading with integrity means that we must tune into our conscience to guide our decisions, and refuse to compromise on what we know is right regardless of how inconvenient, costly or politically inexpedient it may be. That doesn’t mean we don’t work to find mutually agreeable solutions with those around us; it just means we don’t sell out to our principles for the sake of our ego, our status, our hold on power, or bank account.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “One man cannot do right in one department of life while he is occupied doing wrong in any other department. Life is one indivisible whole.”  So as we work hard to meet and exceed the expectations others have of us and deliver the results we know they want, it’s all too easy to justify a little shortcut here and a little white lie there. ‘No big deal,’ we tell ourselves, but over time those shortcuts and little white lies can become our default.

While you may think of yourself as a person of good character who lives honestly and speaks truthfully, I invite you to think more deeply about how you go about both your work and your life. Character isn’t just about being honest. It involves having integrity in everything you do, from following through on your seemingly unimportant promise to following up, to not committing to something you know you just won’t have the resources to fulfill, to going out of your way to let someone know you appreciate the effort they’re putting in or to apologizing when you’ve messed up, however inconsequential your mistake may have been.

Living with integrity and character is akin to weeding a garden. You know that weeding it is good for it, but you don’t always see the results of your effort. It’s only when you fail to dig out the weeds that they eventually take over. Your garden can become so overgrown with weeds that no flowers can blossom.

Your career, your business, your relationships and your life are no different. You have to intentionally put aside time to tend to those patterns of thought and behavior that can, left unchecked, cause us to act in ways that may lack integrity—however seemingly insignificant—and slowly, gradually, disconnect us from some of the core principles that, if you stopped still long enough to think about, you want to build your life upon. We can only blossom in life when we are planted firmly in integrity, committed to making time to weed out those behaviors and beliefs that can compromise it.

While much of my work is focused on encouraging people to think bigger and to take more courageous risks, the one think we should never put at risk is our conscience and good character. I sincerely hope the woman who inspired me to write this column will gain a profoundly valuable lesson for her personal growth as she faces the steep cost that straying off the path of integrity can exact.