Can you teach…or learn integrity?

Yesterday I was surfing around in web 2.0 when I came across a neat survey on Colleague

Ron Ackerhad asked the question, what is the most important quality for a leader? This got me thinking as the responses poured in. A landslide win for “integrity”. I sent Ron a private note suggesting that it would be interesting to see what all those voters meant when they chose integrity. Ron started another poll and got a diverse response. Check it out here!As a leadership development guy I started to reflect on integrity and recalled something I had investigated several years ago that I wanted to share. Can you teach integrity?I have a theory…You cannot teach integrity, you can only help another person to discover the level of integrity they already have.Several years ago while reading some psychology psycho babble I came across something that actually made sense. There was a claim that said that by the age of three most of our character has been defined. What happens at later ages is a process of refinement rather than establishment. I thought about this and decided that it was likely true. Having had experiences with people of different environmental circumstance, my observations supported the claim. So while considering the leadership development process and the identification of leadership candidates I recalled this claim. It made sense to me again. In my experience I have found that you cannot teach character or integrity. You either have it or you do not. As hopeless and final as this position seems there is a light at the end of the tunnel. “Feedback, The Breakfast of Champions” Ken BlanchardI believe in the absence of candid wise feedback each of us will occasionally and inadvertently violate our own standard of integrity, or at least others will perceive us to have done so. Nothing malicious or devious here more ignorance. If we can get trusted feedback we can begin to see how others perceive our actions. Doing this coupled with a values evaluation provides the opportunity to modify our behaviors to ensure they are in line with our integrity. End result: a more consistent and measurable level of personal integrity. “Ready Set Grow” Bryan FlanaganSo we can have different inherent levels of integrity. We can measure integrity in different ways. The interpersonal conflict arising from such differences does not find its root here. Rather it is the misunderstanding of behavior and the accompanying values judgments that get us in trouble. As a leader we are responsible to suspend judgment and help our team grow. This may mean providing feedback on behaviors that undermine the effectiveness of a follower. Learning how to do so with skill and grace is a master’s level course in the journey to being an effective leader.Want to learn more?

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Posted in Case Study, leadership development
6 comments on “Can you teach…or learn integrity?
  1. Your title really caught me,

    I agreed very much with what Bryan Flanagan said, where what we do is providing feedback, if people is having a good attitude, they will be able to change and grow to have a better integrity.

    For person with poor attitude, show them how you treat the person with good attitude better, and they may want to compete and eventually work as hard as the other. If they’re still not changing, we consider whether we still need them or are we satisfied with their performance.

    Just my 2-cents,

  2. George says:


    I agree with you. Character and Integrity cannot be taught. Similar to work ethics.

    You either have it, or you don’t.


  3. Ron Hurst says:

    Robert great point. I loved the Flanagan quote too. It is about learning and growing. I am not sure that you can learn integrity late in life but you can certainly improve your behaviors so they can match what you believe.

    George What if you could learn integrity? After all we did learn something about it from our parents didn’t we…? Agree on the character comment I don’t think you can learn it. Integrity would be very tough and it is not likely you could learn a different level than you have but what if you could…


  4. Douglas Ross says:

    Hi Ron
    Great post and I love the way you have linked integrity with leadership development.

    Integrity is a journey.

    Integrity is defined as wholeness, consistency and purity. Wholeness means that everything is firing on all cylinders at the same time. Consistency means that it can perform at this level over time and purity means that it continually improves itself

    The journey shapes the person. The degree of integrity in a person is a function of acceptance and openness of the person to the lessons learned about themselves, the world they live in and the path itself.


  5. Andrew Lyde says:

    I’ve been struggling over this question since you posted it on the LinkedIn website. I don’t think that integrity is innate, but that it is learned. I looked up “integrity” on Merriam-Websters ( and the first definition is: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.
    This definition leads me to believe that integrity is not something that is good in itself, like love or compassion. Integrity is more about consistency and adherence to one’s values. So potentially I could value hurting as many people as I can. If I maintain a strict adherence to this value, I maintain my integrity.
    This is eye-opening for me because if you had asked me what I value, I would tell you that I value being a man of integrity. Now I see that I need to attach that desire for integrity to good values so that I adhere to a strict code of love and compassion.
    So maybe when we talk about someone having or lacking integrity, we really mean how well that person adheres to our own personal, group, familial, societal, or universal values.

  6. carl raskin says:

    Based on the small read so far, I have a lot to

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