Thursday, December 2, 2004

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about integrity. For most people, the word means some combination of ethics, trustworthiness, and dependability, with maybe some morality thrown in depending upon how you feel about such things. Basically, when someone thinks of a "person of integrity," they envision someone who says what they do, does what they say, and can be depended upon to act in the best interests of a particular context - professional, personal, etc. This is how I have always concieved of the quality of integrity, and is how I believe most people do. In fact, the first definition listed for "integrity" in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition. 2000) is "Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code."

Lately, though, I've been considering the actual word "integrity," and it's led me to a somewhat different interpretation. The Etymology (a linguistic term meaning "where a word comes from") of the word "integrity" is described thus in the aforementioned AHD:
Middle English integrite, from Old French, from Latin integrits, soundness, from integer, whole, complete.

I can't help but think that almost nobody would disagree with the idea that integrity is a good thing to exhibit. It is infact often used as the most basic qualification for jobs, relationships, leadership roles or positions, and anything else involving judgement and responsibility. HAving no integrity is very nearly synonymous with being undeserving of any confidence or trust whatsoever. A percieved or stated lack of integrity is almost a guarantee of losing one's position in any of the aforementioned contexts, as well as many others.

The interesting part, on which I have been re-thinking my understanding of the whole concept, revolves around the phrase "within a particular context." In many conversations that I have had, often with people I deeply respect, when the subject of integrity comes up, it is always isolated to a particular context.

For example, consider "professional integrity," in which the term is used to describe the quality of putting the needs and goals of one's employer or organization first, and putting all personal concerns thereafter. By personal, I don't just mean selfish - personal concern for a co-worker or customer is included. Both are only considered valuable inasmuch as they align with the needs and goals of the business. Another parallel example which has been given a lot of attention recently (for obvious reasons) is "political integrity," which has been colloquially defined as an ability to separate one's personal goals and beliefs from one's decisions and actions in a governmental capacity. The most brightly-flashing neon display here reads "separation of church and state."

Don't get excited - this is not an essay on the separation of church and state. Personally, I believe that one can be resolved by it's corollary, the separation of church and FAITH, but that's for another entry.

What I'm really getting at is that I have begun to harbor the belief that people's general definition of integrity, as embodied in the aforementioned examples, is in direct conflict with integrity itself. Let's look at the third definition from the same lexical source cited throughout this writing for the word "integrity:"

"The quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness."

The two examples I've given for Professional and Political Integrity both exhibit a trait which absolutely contradicts this definition - each requires the supression of one set of values, held by an individual, in favor of another, held by an institution, either temporarily or permanently. In effect, in order to meet the definition of integrity for either of these models, one needs to be not only of two minds, but of two selves, the direct antithesis of being undivided.

When we look for integrity in our leaders and in ourselves, how do we measure it? Do we expect people to be "the same person they are on Saturday night that they are on Sunday morning," or are we looking for someone to play a role, to be an embodiment for an institution rather than a consistent human being? If the former, we should not expect politicians to keep their faith out of their politics, nor should we expect our managers to draw a distinction between personal and "just business." If on the other hand we DO expect our leaders to take on the persona of an institution, in effect to become a stand-in for another entity, then we should really not be surprised if they themselves exhibit a lack of personal integrity - such a lack would actually become not a disqualification, but a requirement.

Personally, I can't quite buy into the latter position. I would rather have my definition of integrity, well, show a little more integrity itself.

This will no doubt require much work on my part.