Acting with integrity
Integrity is the supreme quality of a great leader. Being able to act with integrity is also a core competency of a local councillor. This reflects society’s expectations that their elected leaders will act with honesty and transparency and in the public interest.
But all too often we hear stories of politicians (of all stripes and spots) acting without integrity. We see the pressures of political leadership resulting in good people making poor choices with dire consequences. This then feeds into the vicious cycle of deteriorating trust and a perception that politicians lack integrity.
So, how do you act with integrity in practice? This is a skill to be practised. It is a conscious application of the rules together with an awareness of your purpose and values. Put simply, it is leading with your head and your heart.
The trait of integrity is often bandied about in discussions on good leadership. To start, it is worth reflecting for a moment on what this means.
Brene Brown, a research professor and author, famous for her commentary on leadership defines integrity as “choosing courage over comfort”. This goes beyond a traditional dictionary definition of “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles” and picks up on the challenges of remaining true to your values under pressure.
The pressures of serving as a local government councillor are real and layered. As a local leader you are leading under a magnifying glass – your actions are rightly scrutinised by the public, other levels of government and other councillors. You are highly visible and accountable. Being clear on what integrity is and when you may be acting outside it is a critical skill.
Signals we are outside of integrity
Here are some practical indicators you are out of integrity:
- your actions do not match your words
- you do not do what you say you will
- you do not do the right thing behind closed doors
- you deny mistakes
- you share confidential information
- you avoid taking responsibility for your actions
- you blame others when things go wrong
When we are acting outside of integrity, we can also experience what is known as “cognitive dissonance”. Brene Brown discusses this term in her book Atlas of the Heart. It is a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two ideas, attitudes or beliefs that are psychologically inconsistent with each other. She writes:
“When we are faced with information that challenges what we believe, our first instinct is to make the discomfort, irritation and vulnerability go away by resolving the dissonance. We might do this by rejecting new information, decreasing its importance or avoiding it altogether.”
For example, a councillor subject to a Code of Conduct compliant may hold these two inconsistent thoughts:
1. I am a person of good standing and character
2. I did the wrong thing
In this example, acting with integrity is more than following the rules. It is when the councillor can admit they did the wrong thing and choose the discomfort of the consequences. Instead of doubling down in denial of wrongdoing and trying to avoid the discomfort of admitting they breached the Code of Conduct.
Leading with your head and heart
Integrity is also underpinned by your personal and professional purpose and values.
Simon Sinek, a thought-leader in purpose and successful leadership, describes your purpose as your ‘why’. He explains that clearly knowing why you are doing something is far more important than what you do or how you do it. Being able to define your purpose as a public leader helps you to stay in integrity. Your purpose is like your north star – it keeps you on the right track in the face of pressure, adversity and uncertainty.
Your purpose has deep personal meaning to you and is likely to be what drove you to stand for election. As a local government councillor, it is helpful to define your ‘actionable purpose’ – that is, the purpose that can be achieved through clearly defined goals. It also important that you can take action in alignment with these goals. Having a clear actionable purpose will keep you energised in your role as a councillor amidst the complex and varied responsibilities.
Finally, it is helpful to remember that there must be congruence between your purpose and your civic role and responsibilities. Both as an individual councillor and member of the governing body. For example, your purpose may be “to connect people to their community and champion inclusivity”. This may translate to your purpose as a councillor “to influence change in council systems and decision-making to ensure inclusivity and accessibility are considered in every project and policy”.
In summary, integrity is underpinned by your purpose and values and requires a principled dedication to honesty and ethical standards. Unfortunately, the modern day public perception that politicians lack integrity is compounded by the incompetence of a few politicians. This puts more onus on you as a local leader to have robust intrapersonal skills in staying aligned with integrity. Articulating your purpose is a valuable way to do this when the going gets tough.