How to foster an environment of integrity in your organization
Written by Dr Jack London
Political and business scandals are nothing new. Even our most trusted and dependable national institutions—military organizations, critical government agencies, the National Zoo—have been plagued by scandals. But over the past several months, reports of misconduct and wrongdoing have seemed to become almost daily occurrences. As stories of disgraceful activities continue to come out, one has to ask what can be done to reverse this alarming trend affecting our most revered institutions.
Lead with Character
The answer lies in our strength of character. Leadership that focuses on building a culture of character has the power to create, change and reinvigorate individuals, organizations and, ultimately, society.
Character is a complex aggregate of mental and ethical traits that form the true nature of a person. It is not to be confused with how famous or wealthy you are. It is a belief system, a part of your personality that influences others.
While the concept of character may seem abstract, my life experiences and lessons from leaders throughout history have taught me a great deal about how to build character. I believe that character has been a key factor in my personal growth and success and the success of the organizations I have joined and led.
To that end, I have identified five concrete strategies that leaders can put into practice to build a culture of character within their own organization.
- Define a core philosophy. The first step toward building character is to define it. Set the highest standards of integrity and excellence, establish clear expectations and identify behavior that is acceptable and not acceptable. Raise the bar, and you raise people’s aspirations for what they could become.
During my time at the US Naval Academy, I came to understand and greatly appreciate the importance of character. The curriculum there is based on a moral education, and its Honor Concept is based on “the moral values of respect for human dignity, respect for honesty and respect for the property of others.”
It was at the Academy that I learned the importance of setting the bar high. This shaped my adult character and set me on a path for success. I identified with a set of principles around which I have endeavored ever since to live my life: doing the right thing, being a friend to your fellow man, becoming a strong leader by being a person of integrity and character, and inspiring others to do the same.
- Lead by example. Character begins at the top. Embrace and uphold the standards of character you have defined for the rest of your team. People will see and observe your actions. As a role model, you will empower others to follow the same path.
Nothing beats leading by example. Think about the leadership of George Washington, the father of our country. He clearly embodied the spirit and intent of character-based leadership. His influence on our military and the Continental Congress affected the outcome of the American Revolution and the course of world history.
When Washington was elected to the presidency, he refused to be called king. He subordinated his own self-interests and political aspirations for the sake of the country, setting a powerful example for the behavior of all future leaders.
- Get everyone on board. Leaders play a critical role in establishing an organization’s culture, but the success of an organization isn’t based solely on a select set of individuals in the top positions. In order to get the greatest value in an organization, it is critical that everyone understands the vision, values and goals and believes in them. Not just the CEO. Not just the management team. Everyone.
Everyone in your organization must possess the knowledge, skills and behaviors to create a cohesive culture and effectively carry out your mission. One important way to accomplish this is by establishing a process of indoctrination for all employees, from the front lines to the back office.
Eliminating internal politics is critical to making the mass adoption of standards possible. The mission is, above all else, including one’s own self-interests. To create unity, political manipulation cannot be tolerated at any level of an organization.
The key to enabling this kind of success is to hire and train the right kind of leaders. You need leaders who will lead, not get in the way.
At CACI, we developed a comprehensive onboarding process that includes training programs, manuals and working guidelines for making character a pivotal aspect of our culture. I applied the lessons I learned from military training and worked specific principles into all aspects of our vision, mission, operations, and recruitment and incentive processes.
We developed a series of manuals for new employees and managers clearly outlining who we were as an organization, what we were about, what our mission was, and what the expectations were for every team member and leader within the organization.
Those who aspire to meet our criteria love being part of our organization and excel as part of the team. Those who do not want to adhere to our standards eventually find a way to leave.
And so it is important to establish a corporate culture of “character, values and pride” that serves as the anchor and foundation of the organization. Character should be embodied and empowered at every level of an organization in order to ensure organizational success.
- Make the tough decisions. Uphold your principles and do the right thing, even when the stakes are high or a crisis occurs.
This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect; no one is. Character-based leadership is more about integrity and intention and less about the specific outcome. Take action and accept responsibility for your actions. Learn from your mistakes when things go wrong and move forward.
When CACI was hit with the unfounded accusation of being a part of the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, we could have taken the easy way out: fire the people accused of wrongdoing and eliminate an entire group of managers associated with the project.
What we did instead was the right thing to do. We acknowledged and were transparent about what we had been accused of and immediately set out with our own third-party investigation team to determine exactly what happened and what didn’t. Once we discovered that our people had been wrongly accused, we set out to defend our good name.
Turning around negative perceptions stoked by the media was an extremely difficult thing to do. We held our own campaign for the truth, which included writing a book about the experience and reaching out to media outlets that would talk with us.
This episode in our company’s history could have taken a turn for the worse were it not for our strength of character. We did more than survive—we thrived—and our company’s future has never been brighter.
- Communicate and reinforce. Building character is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. It must be constant and ever-present within the organization’s culture, reinforced again and again.
You must integrate character and excellence in everything you do. Communicate the core philosophy you have defined for your organization, in every way and in every form, through every type of internal and external communication.
Your team will be watching and listening. Use meetings and informal gatherings as an opportunity to promote character. Use the power of the written word to educate and communicate key messages. Implement an awards program and hold ceremonies to recognize those who have met the high standards you have set. Use every tool at your disposal to reinforce the idea that strength of character is expected and appreciated in your organization.
Your goal is to instill a set of ethics and principles in the mind of every individual so doing the right thing becomes second nature, like a good habit.
A Call to Action: Making a Commitment to Character
It will take bold leadership at every level to solve this growing crisis of character. I call out to every individual, no matter your industry or position, to make a commitment to character. We must challenge not only ourselves but also those around us to take on the challenge to raise the bar on our expectations of good character, integrity and ethical behavior.
Collectively, we have the power to raise the bar, shift the trajectory of our national institutions and inspire the next generation of leaders. But if we are to succeed, we must start now. Join me in making a commitment for change—a commitment to character.