A couple of years ago, I wrote an article I don’t know what to do with about why integrity has become the main characteristic of business leadership. Read just about any of the business memoirs or books about leadership, and they all put integrity at the top of the list of what makes a person a leader. And they don’t mean “integrity” in the “I don’t take bribes” sense. Rather, they’re talking about a type of humble authenticity: Know who you are, don’t put on airs, don’t believe the butt-kissers who work for you.
Obviously integrity is a desirable characteristic, but it’s weird to put it at the pinnacle of leadership. It used to be about courage, resolution, and worlds like that. “Integrity” is like saying that what made Richard the Lion-Hearted a great leader was that he felt good about himself, or Churchill was a great leader because he was a generous tipper. So, I wondered how that happened, and came up with an hypothesis:
You read a book like Jack Welch’s memoirs and you feel bad for the guy. He’s a chemical engineer who becomes CEO of General Electric, and feels completely out of his depth. (That’s not what he says. It’s how I’m reading him.) He has to make decisions about everything from nuclear reactors to whether Leno or Letterman should get the Tonight Show. He can’t possibly know enough â€” modern corporations are too big to know â€” so he sees in himself an uncanny ability to pierce through the old assumptions and the BS. Integrity lets him see the truth. It also lets him eat the Hegelian cake Americans require of their leaders: A leader has to be someone special, but has to be just like us. Integrity lets you be special by seeing just how limited and ordinary you are. Perfect!
I keep trying to find places to put this idea. It comes with an entertaining reading of the Welch book. So, I opened Chapter 8, on decisions, with it. And then came back to it toward the end. Chapter 8 is supposed to be a second proof-of-the-pudding chapter (the first is on science) that asks if all the previous blather about ambiguous knowledge falls away when you have to make a hard yes-or-no decision. Or, is decision-making taking on network properties? After three weeks of writing, I thought maybe it worked. Its joints were wrapped in rhetorical duct tape, but maybe no one would notice.
I put the chapter aside for a week after finishing it, and then re-read it. Nope. It sucks.
I’ve spent the past 48 hours compulsively re-writing it, over and over, each time thinking that I see how I can make it work. I’ve outlined what I think it should say and I’ve outlined what it does say, and none of them are right.
So, I just went through it and tore out all of the integrity stuff. I’m left with a clearer argument with fewer problem areas. But I still don’t know if it works.