Integrity and the Entrepreneur: A Response
Integrity is about more than internal consistency. Its foundation must be in truth and righteousness.
These fifteen statements on integrity in business and organizational life (Comment, March 25, 2011) are certainly encouraging! As a client or business partner to any of these folk I would be grateful: they all have a functioning moral compass and a sensitive conscience guiding their decisions and actions. I'd consider entering into a working relationship with any of them because, reading their comments, I trust that they will not be satisfied just to gravitate to the legal minimum, and still less to the dictates of the "invisible hand" of the market (in other words, what is in their rational self-interest, as they understand it). No, they will ask, "But is this the right way to handle this situation?"
As someone who's spent a lot of time thinking about organizational (and Christian) ethics, however, I want to add a few thoughts.
First, integrity fares best when we all understand why it is so important. (The symposium respondents imply much of what I am about to say, of course.) I'd begin with trust, without which we simply cannot live and work in any healthy way. We cannot verify every detail of a product or service or organization or individual in advance; we must trust that things will be much as they have been portrayed to us. And we cannot protect against every possible failure that may come along. Mountains of legal fine print paralyze more than they protect. It is the context of trust that facilitates business, friendship, and indeed, all relationships in life.
But trust requires "trustworthy." Blind trust may occur once. Trustworthy trust is what endures. And integrity is at the heart of what we mean by trustworthy. Integrity labels the consistent, harmonious integration of what we think with what we say with what we do. The term applies to individuals or organizations.
Of course, this is more than just internal consistency; Hitler may have been consistent in what he thought, said, and did, but we don't call it integrity. So the foundation of integrity must be truth and righteousness. My "integration" is not just internal to myself, but grounded in what is true and what is right and fair. No one and no organization is going to achieve perfection here. We will disagree about what is true and just, and we fail to perform without flaws from time to time. But the unswerving commitment to integrity is what makes you or your organization trustworthy.
Second: integrity of thought, speech, and act thrives on clarity. In some of the cases (rounding up or down on invoices, downplaying risks while playing up the aspirations, stressing one's focus on a client project while minimizing the distractions of competing projects), much of the anxiety over integrity could be alleviated by thinking and communicating clearly, fully, and persuasively about how these situations will be handled with excellence. Describing successful precedent situations can give prospective clients confidence in your judgment on how to treat their project. More truth and more transparency—combined with a winsome passion and missional aspiration—is the best way to go.
Third: when I read several of the cases, I was slightly concerned about possible individualism. In today's business management context, collaboration and teamwork are huge emphases. Unfortunately, these concepts are only rarely brought up in relation to ethics and values. But when it comes to innovation, problem solving, and strategy, they are all the rage, and rightly so. In Christian thinking about integrity and ethics, collaboration and teamwork are imperative, not merely an option, if the biblical tradition is allowed its say. All the great moral teachings of Scripture (the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 12-13, and others) were given to a group—a community. If "two or three of you agree," what is "bound on earth is bound in heaven." "Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought to think," counsels St. Paul (Romans 12:3ff); remember that you need others to discern and live out a transformed life. The team emphasis in Scripture is overwhelming.
So if it is a matter of deciding whether to sell our software or expertise to purchasers who may use it in part for projects we would deem evil, or rounding up or down on invoices, or deciding how to respond to an edict not to share my faith at work, or determining a limit to my willingness to spin a client's chosen self-image, or thinking about when and how to confront a crime suspect on my staff, or wondering how to disburse my payroll when some will go without, or deciding whether to alert a customer to my unexpected opportunity to profit from their contract, or working out how to articulate my concern about a competitor's trustworthiness, or deciding how to approach a donor prospect—in every case, my first move should be to talk it over and even pray about it with my "integrity posse" or "integrity kitchen cabinet." "I'm looking at situation X right now," I share with them. "How would you advise me? Am I seeing it clearly? Am I missing anything?"
My last comment: in these fifteen cases, are we always taking all of the "stakeholders" into consideration in an appropriate way? Integrity is not just about how I feel, or even just about me and my client. Whenever my actions affect you in a significant way, you should have some say about those actions. You have a "stake" in what I am about to do. Integrity requires that I always pay attention to those impacts. Tiny potential impact, tiny consideration. Major impact on you, major consideration of your interests and perspectives.