The Key to Integrity

Don't let it be limited by the number of zeros

If you’re like me, you might sometimes find yourself learning on the fly.  When approached with a problem, the mere act of thinking through the issue, and offering advice…often results in real-time discovery.  To me, that’s one exhilarating part of leadership…facing problems and affirming in the moment what you truly believe.

After all, our handling of problems is a natural extension of what we believe internally.  So in essence, the advice we give others as leaders is the tangible expression of our internal character.  The sum total of what we hold dear.

Years ago, as the senior director in American Express’s merchant services operation, one of my responsibilities was to handle escalated calls from our small business call center.  On one occasion, a customer service representative requested assistance with a situation requiring American Express to issue a credit to a merchant.  Basically, a mistake had happened and we owed the merchant some money.  The situation was common by all measures except for one…it involved 4 zeros.  It was a $70,000 credit owed to this merchant.

It was this situation that helped crystallize for me the value I place on integrity.  I remember the exchange still today, over 15 years later.  It went something like this:

  • Representative: Ok, here’s the situation.  I have a merchant on the phone and they’re requesting a credit of $70,000. I’ve reviewed the situation and, sure enough, we made a mistake in our reconciliation and it appears they’re entitled to $70,000.
  • Me: So what the issue?
  • Representative : It’s $70,000!
  • Me: What would you do if it were $7.
  • Representative : I’d have already issued the credit and I’d be on my next call.
  • Me: What if it were $700.
  • Representative : Same.
  • Me: How about $7,000?
  • Representative : I’d issue the credit.
  • Me: This is very simple and I don’t want you to ever forget this point.  Doing the right thing never changes.  We always do what’s right.  Our integrity is on the line.  Our personal integrity and our corporate integrity.  Whether there are no zeros or four zeros…we do what’s right.  Don’t be spooked by the number of zeros.  Sure there’s more at stake, but as soon as our integrity wavers because of the cost to us, then we cheapen it.  Maybe we already lost it.  Please issue the credit and reinforce how sorry we are for hanging up $70,000 of their money for even a moment.

There’s an expression that “everyone has a price.”  Sometimes a collapse in integrity is not a matter of being bought, it’s a matter of reaching a point that we’ll no longer pay the price.  To be sure, integrity can be costly.  However, a lack of integrity can be even more expensive.

Question: As a leader, how many zeros is integrity worth to you? I’d love to hear your story of when building or maintaining your integrity came at a price. How many zeros were required? Was it worth the price? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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