Is Integrity really that important for a leader?

Growing up in London, I used to love going on holiday to the seaside resorts in the UK and they all had ‘sticks of rock’ – candy for the Americans reading this. The name of the resort was all through the stick, no matter where you broke it. It might have been easier to just put a label on the end of the stick of rock but no, it’s there throughout the length of the stick. It has always been a metaphor of integrity for me.

One definition of integrity is: being honest and having strong moral principles. A person with integrity behaves ethically and does the right thing, even behind closed doors.

Political integrity means exercising political power consistently in the public interest, independent from private interests, and not using power to maintain the office holder’s own wealth and position. If you are looking for integrity, politics isn’t usually the first place you look to find it. One thing I have noticed is that in the UK, when a politician is caught with a lack of integrity, they will generally resign their office. For instance, when Boris Johnson, the former UK Prime minister, had a party in Downing Street and broke his own restrictive rules of COVID, he didn’t get away with it. However, in other countries, politicians see a distinct separation of personal and work relationships and so when personal integrity is questioned, it doesn’t necessarily affect their work role.

Perhaps the difference in how countries react to the lack of integrity in their leaders can come down to ‘Power Distance.’  Power distance is the perceived degree of inequality among people. In high-power-distance society, the “superiors,” or those in power, perceive themselves, and are also perceived by others, to be at a higher level and, hence, have a great degree of control over others. So, if you are living in a high-power distance society, even if the leader isn’t leading with integrity, you give your allegiance anyway, as it is expected and a value in your society. In a low power distance society, the media will speak into the lack of integrity and pressure from society will make it difficult for the leader not to step down.

What about leadership in the church and in YWAM? Well perhaps it depends on where you live. If you come from a high-power distance country and move to Europe, you may be surprised at the feedback you receive when the way you are living and leading isn’t appreciated! Sadly from time to time we do experience a lack of integrity in church and YWAM leaders and generally in these cases they are asked to step down or resign themselves.

Jesus raises the bar of integrity as we read in the gospels. “For I tell you, unless your lives are more pure and full of integrity than the religious scholars and the Pharisees you will never experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom.” Matthew 5:20

The pharisees said one thing and did another and Jesus made it clear that this attitude is not acceptable. He spoke to his disciples and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles, lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

The classic three areas of lack of integrity include money, sex and power. It would seem that when we talk of integrity, we usually think about sexual impropriety and embezzling money. Power is thought of more of a style of leadership. However, I believe any area of our lives that we are not living up to the standards that Jesus gave us, results in us not being a model of integrity.

As I look back in my YWAM experience, I am sorry to say that there have been a number of integrity issues and leaders have had to step down from their role or leave YWAM. For example:

  • the leader changes the history of a ministry to make it sound like the leader was totally responsible for the outcomes, when in fact many others were involved.
  • the leader begins to move more independently from YWAM and seeks to add ‘yes men and women’ onto the board, changes the name and takes the assets out of YWAM.
  • the heart of the leader can be to bless others but, in the process, takes liberties financially and gets the ministry into debt. The financial policies in these cases aren’t secure enough to highlight these over-the-top expenses.
  • the leader him or herself is spending money on ‘office needs’ when actually it is for them personally.
  • the leader spends money beyond the budget without agreement from his/her team.
  • the leader establishes favourites on staff who receive special treatment.
  • the leader allows him/herself to form emotionally based relationships that are inappropriate.
  • The leader makes unilateral decisions for staff, for the direction of the ministry, for the use of finances, etc without any reference to the leadership team.
  • The leader’s communication is exaggerated, minimises a situation, only shares one viewpoint and is biased or shares part truth, leaving out information necessary for full understanding.

There are so many situations where a leader can fall into a lack of integrity and lose their leadership or bring reproach on the ministry. Integrity remains the one major quality that employees are looking for in a leader – the quality that enables them to trust the leader and to know that the leader is looking out for their best interests. To lead with integrity, the leader must have clear boundaries and policies with accountability relationships that are active on a regular basis. It is difficult to be accountable to someone living miles away and only seeing them every six months. It is important for leaders to seek out leaders who they can trust to speak into their lives when needed.

If you are married, your spouse can be a great source of accountability but shouldn’t be the only source. Your leadership team of course sees you in action and so give them the freedom to speak to you concerning any attitude, behaviour and communication that you are involved in for the ministry. Your mentors or mentoring peer group are well set up to keep you on the straight and narrow, as long as you remain open and vulnerable.

Paul gives us a goal to reach for in integrity:

‘Above all, set yourself apart as a model of a life nobly lived. With dignity, demonstrate integrity in all that you teach.’ Titus 2:7

Until next month,

Stephen Mayers

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