Personal integrity: The foundation for leadership credibility

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What’s your limit? When do you know you’ve “had enough” of whatever is bothering you? Whether it is pressure at work, declining health or dysfunction in a personal relationship, what is it that finally makes you change your life?

An odd question? Perhaps. But it’s one worth considering if you’re serious about finding success and happiness.

Some context: In my leadership development work, I meet a lot of people who are successful. Many of these people want to be even more successful and we work together to create strategies for their growth and advancement. At some point, we reach what seems like an inevitable plateau. Forward progress stops and frustration begins to creep in. Compromises get made; rationalization takes place. Personal integrity gets challenged.

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This is fantastic! This is precisely the point at which people can choose growth or stagnation. A choice to grow often results in extraordinary learning – a clearing out of old thought habits and a turning away from patterns of behavior that no longer work. The relief and joy that often accompany this work are heartwarming.

A choice to stay safe often results in the “quiet desperation” that Henry David Thoreau wrote about in his classic book “Walden.” This choice usually comes from an overemphasis on what others want, need or expect at the expense of one’s own sense of integrity. It also comes from a belief that some structures are impermeable to change, that some people are too powerful to challenge or that their resources are tapped out.

Personal integrity, like many human characteristics, is multi-faceted. It is made up of the beliefs you hold dear, the experiences that have shaped your perspective, and the way you respond to life’s unfolding. It is a product of education and experience. The more you learn and grow, the clearer and more reliable it becomes as a source of wisdom and guidance.

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Personal integrity is what allows you to draw boundaries, to know your limits and respect them. This awareness also makes you sensitive to and respectful of the boundaries of others.

Personal integrity is a source of strength and courage to call upon when you wish to push beyond old limits. It’s what fortifies many leaders during difficult times and what individuals draw upon when they are ready to make significant life changes.

Personal integrity is the foundation for leadership integrity. As the world gets louder, more frenetic and more dangerous, leaders who have a strong sense of self and a clear understanding of how the world works are better equipped to make difficult decisions and support them with consistent action. They do not fear opposition and they do not take challenge as a personal affront.

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As cultures clash – whether of different countries of origin or different generations of birth – leaders of integrity are capable of giving a full hearing to the differences with organizational goals firmly in mind. Compromise may emerge in the form of organizational structure, professional roles or operational methods, but never in their commitment to truth telling and ethical dealings with all stakeholders.

Personal integrity is not the same as self-righteousness. Self-righteous people are often fearful. They don’t trust their strength and they have trouble drawing boundaries. As a result, they often feel threatened and they typically respond with rigidity and condemnation. Sharp words and exaggerated stories are hallmarks of the self-righteous.

What are your limits? What do you do when you encounter them? Do you greet life’s events with curiosity and courage or do you tend to protect and defend yourself? The tendency when life feels overwhelming is to assume a protective crouch. Look around; you’ll see it everywhere. Choosing to push farther is an act of courage that sets you apart.

Learning about yourself is critical to success in any endeavor. Take time to reflect on the things you do and the reasons why you do them. Notice the circumstances that trigger your reactions. Awareness is the first step toward change. Choice is the second. Personal integrity is the outcome of many intentional steps toward a strong and purposeful you.

-Susan A. Marshall is an author, speaker and the founder of Backbone Institute LLC ( whose tagline is “Never grow a wishbone where a backbone ought to be,” and whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future, one person or team at a time. She can be reached at (262) 567-5983 or

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