With the report now complete by Louis Freeh about the sex scandal at Penn State University the word “integrity” is being used almost continuously. I’d like to spend a moment pondering this word and its meaning and implementation.
Here is the definition from http://www.dictionary.com
1.adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2.the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.
The idea of adherence to moral and ethical principles is what comes to mind for most of us. The definition that l like is, “telling the truth to oneself.”
Most of us recognize integrity when we make a conscious decision about an issue and express this internal decision with a statement and action that is consistent with this decision and with these moral and ethical principles.
The first step in being a person of integrity is the internal recognition of universal moral and ethical principles. Where to these come from, these universal principles and how are they adopted by us? Religious values and traditions are the most common source for these moral and ethical principles. Our own philosophy of life is also rooted in our family experiences as well. Most of us draw from many sources to construct our own ethical framework. We tend to access these when we face difficult issues or challenges in our life.
The Penn State crisis brings another issue to light, that of institutional integrity and how ones personal values often can be compromised. It is not that the people involved in this lapse of judgement were fundamentally unethical people. This case is very similar to the child sex abuse case that has roiled the Catholic Church as well. Two things happen with institutions that are good to learn from.
First, the values that the institution embodied and articulated had a multiplier effect. By this I mean these institutions both magnified the importance of their core ethical values and fueled success and development far beyond what any individual could accomplish. So it is natural and good to identify and harness these institutional values. The problem comes when the institution replaces the core values themselves and the good of the institution replaces the values themselves.
It is often as simple as, “I want to protect the ‘integrity’ of our institution and its legacy.” These good intentions rarely work out as predicted. Like the spouse who cheats, the usually are caught or turn themselves in.
Institutions also try to “control the PR or public relations.” This rarely works our well either. It is true for individuals as well as institutions. Facing our own failings sooner rather than later always works out best. The longer you wait the harder and more complex the situation becomes.
So accessing, studying and thinking about our core ethical values on a daily basis is important. It is equally important to cultivate relationships with people who we give permission to hold us accountable to stay true to our values and who understand and share or at least appreciate those values.
Finally, don’t give up on organized religion or institutions that whose values you value and draw inspiration from, but remember, you need to tell the truth to yourself first. If your organization comes up short, know that and act in accordance of the core ethical values that you know are the well spring of life and ethical decisions.