Integrity is generally agreed to be a vital quality in a leader. It’s usually defined in terms of honesty and adhering strongly to an ethical code. However, when applied to non-human areas such as a body of data, or an ecosystem, something that has ‘integrity’ is ‘intact’, ‘whole’, or ‘not tampered with’. This was in fact the original meaning of the word (from the Latin meaning ‘untouched’).

Integrity therefore came to mean ‘ethically sound’ by metaphorical extension. As so often with metaphors applied to human subjective experience, we can discover something useful when we take the metaphor literally.

Consider a person who is grappling with an inner conflict. It may be that two of their most important values are in conflict, or that they cannot choose between alternatives that seem to be equally tempting (or equally scary). Because memory, learning and behaviour are influenced by emotional states, it could even be that what they believe and how they act change significantly depending on how they are feeling.

Can a person who has significant unresolved internal conflicts be a good leader? It’s doubtful. Such a person would find it hard to make decisions and stick to them, because whichever alternative they choose would leave part of themselves unsatisfied. In addition, when you feel ambivalent about your own decisions, it is hard to defend them against criticism.

So unresolved internal conflicts do not make for good leadership. They lead to indecision, inconsistency, and an inability to stick to your guns – none of which are desirable characteristics in a leader. In order to build the sound internal foundation (also known as “character”) which is necessary for leadership, you need to identify your own values and resolve any values conflicts that you uncover.

Being clear about your own values and acting in line with them also means that you will be perceived as “walking your talk” – the key element in leading by example.

The most important thing to remember about emotional intelligence as it applies to leadership is that self-awareness is the foundation on which all the other ‘competencies’ of emotional intelligence are based. If you are not aware of your own emotions, it’s impossible to manage them and hard to understand the emotions of others; in turn, self-management and empathy are prerequisites for being able to handle and inspire emotions in other people.

For a splendid fictional example of how low self-awareness impacts on leadership, see any episode of  The Office or the nearly-as-good American remake, The Office: An American Workplace.

Integrity, self-awareness, and leadership

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