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How to develop personal integrity

Resolving to adopt a lifestyle of integrity is a decision that will affect all aspects of your daily pursuits — your activities on a personal level as well as on behalf of your family and business. It all starts with the desire to take a self-inventory to discover needs you’re not currently fulfilling in your life and then deciding to take actions to change this.

First and foremost, this process involves declaring an intention that you follow through on with appropriate commitments and actions. Here are some suggested steps to set you on your way:

1. Make promises and keep them. A promise is the first part of a decision, a responsibility that you have chosen to take on. When you do not follow through on your promises, you have lost focus and may fail at fulfilling your responsibilities. Be sensible in maintaining and fulfilling your obligations in a timely manner.

Also remember that there is enough time for you devote moments for yourself and to spend occasions with family and loved ones. Enjoy life before overcommitting to tasks that take you away from how you would like to enjoy your life.

2. Be honest in all your communications. Exercising integrity in your communications means saying what you are going to do and then doing so. People understand that life is filled with challenges. When you provide honest communication to others about your obligations and why something can (or can’t) happen in the time frame promised, they will most likely understand. Try to not overcommit to please others. This will lead to a loss of integrity and failed relationships.

3. Keep yourself and your environment clean and organized. This begins with the recognition that you are the core of your business. It’s difficult to exercise influence in the other areas of your life if you don’t make the time every day to be self-aware of your environment.

Do the little things that you have been meaning to do for yourself. When is the last time that you made time to read a book? What happened to that project you started three years ago and never finished? What’s the fate of the one thing you’re passionate about but have been too busy to do while making a living?

Organize the clutter and clear your slate by getting rid of the things around you that detract from your focus. Look at the papers around your desk, mail on the table and tidy up (and discard) the extra things scattered in your home that you have always thought to rid yourself of.

4. Stay focused. Have you ever noticed when your personal care vanishes that everything around you starts to slip as well? Finding the balance in your life to maintain yourself, your household and your business is difficult. I have found that making lists and setting alarms on my phone or online calendar keep me on track even when the clock tries to get the best of me. Notifying people important to you (friends, family and colleagues) of your commitments will help keep you accountable.

5. Allow for the proper influences. To increase your integrity, surround yourself with people you admire. If you don’t feel you can engage personally with people of influence, read books or listen to motivational seminars to help raise your awareness in the right direction. What you feed your mind affects what you project outward. Your integrity in life is affected by your inputs.

The intention here is for you to build self-awareness but not for undue self-scrutiny or judgment. You don’t need to be perfect and it is OK to make mistakes. Commit to make decisions to set things right or just start over again. Decide to make these commitments in these small ways and you’ll find yourself improving your integrity and strengthening relationships.

How to develop personal integrity

While it can be hard to spot in the early stages, there are at least five signs that show you lack integrity.

It’s one thing to know you might lack it in certain areas, but the question is how do you reverse that. How do you build integrity? How do you develop it?

Integrity is about more than just doing the right thing, It’s about building the kind of character that can survive a crisis intact.

In the same way a building that has integrity can survive a storm, a life that has integrity can do the same.

So how do you build integrity?

1. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself.

Of all the lies we tell, the ones we tell ourselves are the most deadly.

Question your motives.

Stop justifying what you know to be wrong.

Stop excusing yourself.

2. Seek wise counsel.

We all have blind spots. It’s one thing to be honest with yourself, but sometimes you and I are just blind to faults others can see.

Find three or four people who believe in you and ask them for feedback on your life.

3. Decide to honour God, not please people.

Doing the right thing is almost never the easy thing, and sometimes it’s not the popular thing.

Honouring God is not the same as believing you are always right and everyone else is wrong – it simply means you are going to live with a long view of what to do, informed by scripture.

It means enduring short term pain for longer-term gain.

To avoid becoming arrogant or deluded, make sure you test what obedience looks like for you not only against scripture and prayer, but also with your circle of wise counsel (see above). They will see things you can’t see.

4. Be appropriately transparent.

We’d all like to be something we’re not. Admit your shortcomings.

You don’t have to tell everyone what you’re struggling with, but you need to tell someone.

Part of being honest with yourself is being honest with others. And as much as you might be afraid that everyone will think less of you, living transparently and not pretending to be someone you aren’t, actually makes people think more of you.

It’s counter-intuitive. It’s also transformative.

5. Put yourself first when it comes to personal growth.

I know that sounds selfish, even unbiblical, but I’m not sure it is.

Jesus prepared for thirty years before ministering for three. And during those three years he often disappeared to pray. You can only give what you’ve got. And he spent whole seasons of his life receiving from God what he needed to give to the world.

Cancel some appointments. Tell the kids to wait. You need to build a solid spiritual, emotional and relational foundation for your life.

Pray. Open the Bible (for you – not for anyone else pastors). Go for a run. Eat something healthy. Go for dinner with a friend who gives you life.

If your cup is empty, how are you going to fill anyone else’s?

These are five practices I’ve found helpful in my life.

What have you discovered helps you build integrity?

For over a decade now I have been asking people some simple questions like “What is the most important thing in your life?” or “What do you care about most of all?” No matter where in the world I go, the most common answer is always the same. Yes, you guessed it right – Family. Of course, everyone should care deeply about, and do their absolute best to ensure the well-being of one’s family. So when I hear this answer I typically ask them to show me their diary for the last six months. A quick flip through their schedule and it becomes clear in many cases that family has not been their priority. More often than not, people fail the diary test. When confronted with this uncomfortable truth, they justify it by saying their jobs are very demanding, or that they are working so hard only for the sake of the family’s well-being.

Really? The consistency of responses regardless of culture or geography raises an important question – how honest are these responses? And if they are not fully honest, who are the respondents most dishonest with?

For several decades now, emotional intelligence or EQ has been bandied about as the key skill for career success. Researchers have found that people with higher EQs make more money and get promoted faster. The argument is simple: Emotional intelligence is primarily made up of two things – self-awareness and social-awareness. The more aware you are of your own feelings, the higher the chances of you managing your emotions intelligently. The more aware you are of others, the higher the chances of you managing your relationships intelligently. And if you are intelligent about managing your own emotions and those of others around you, chances are you will succeed more than someone that lives a reactive existence without such awareness and intelligence. All of this is true. However, if one wants the full benefit of such intelligence – which is to achieve true happiness and fulfillment along with (and not just) material success – one must first meet a key prerequisite: emotional integrity.

Emotional integrity is the courage to acknowledge one’s true feelings, wants and desires without judging them with the societal lens. In essence, it is about being 100% honest with oneself. If one is just emotionally intelligent without being emotionally honest, the benefit will at best be temporary and skin deep.

Unfortunately, most people suffer from low or inadequate emotional integrity, often without knowing it. Here are some common examples:

“I really want to pursue a higher purpose, but I cannot take any risks because of my family responsibilities.” – Or could it be because of lack of personal courage or fear of failure?

“I am compromising my value(s) for greater good.” – Really? Or is it because it is convenient and/or no one is looking? Or could it be that it is not a deeply held value in the first place?

“I hate everything about the relationship I am in but for several reasons I have no choice but to stay in it.” – Or is the fear of being left all alone in the world greater than the pain of the bad relationship?

“I am not succeeding because I haven’t had the lucky breaks many others have had.” – Or might it be because not enough pro-active effort has been made?

“I am helpless because I have no power or authority to change anything.” – Or are the risks associated with challenging the status quo too scary?

“I will pursue what I really want after I have been successful, or after I have achieved financial security for my family.” – Are you clear about what you really want, and what success looks like in the first place?

The list can go on and on. The point is, without honestly acknowledging what one really wants most out of life, true fulfillment may not be possible.

So, how can one develop high emotional integrity? By introspecting deeply about the five most important things one wants in life, and rank ordering them. The exercise sounds easier than it is because for it to be powerful, it requires complete honesty with oneself. For example, if push came to shove, would you choose your own health or your family’s financial security? Or, what is more important and valuable to you – your personal sense of achievement or helping others? These are tough questions, and there are no universally right or wrong answers. Integrity begins at home; one must first develop laser sharp clarity of what is most important and what s/he wants most out of life. Based on such honest clarity, one can then make choices about focus, actions and behavior. In the absence of emotional integrity too many people spend an entire lifetime compromising and sacrificing, only to regret it at the end of their lives. As Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse in the palliative care wing of a hospital found out, the top regret of the dying is “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

A life full of compromise and sacrifice does not do justice to any of the varied roles one plays in life. When at work, we feel guilty about not spending enough time with the family. When at home, we constantly worry about work. If at all we play, our mind is forever pre-occupied by family and/or work matters. In any case, we are never fully present, and before we know it, we end up in our death bed thinking about the top regrets of our life.

It doesn’t have to end up this way. Life becomes a lot more fulfilling and satisfying if one can change his mindset from sacrifices to choices. This transition (from sacrifices to choices) is one of life’s most liberating experiences because one moves from forever feeling like a victim to being empowered. Once empowered with deep clarity about what is most important, one can make the most difficult of choices with courage and conviction. And the primal step towards acquiring such empowerment is to develop the highest possible degree of emotional integrity. Add a bit of Imagineering (see below), and you will be well on your way to true happiness, success and fulfillment.

Going From Victim to Empowered:

  1. Honestly list what you really want most out of your life
  2. Acknowledge your wants, desires and ambitions without any judgment or guilt
  3. Imagineer your life: Imagine what you want to achieve, visualize the impact you want your life to have, and reverse engineer it by making choices rather than sacrifices.

I am CEO of Stewardship Asia Center (SAC) Singapore, and Founder President of the Leadership Energy Consulting Company, Seattle WA. Author of Too Many Bosses, Too Few leaders, Be the Change, and Open Source Leadership; I have extensive global experience in Leadership Development and Corporate Governance, with a particular focus on streamlining business strategy, organizational architecture, and culture. Formerly, I have been CEO of the Asia-based Iclif Leadership & Governance Center, the global Chief Learning Officer of Morgan Stanley and The Coca-Cola Company, and have held senior positions at American Express, HSBC and Goldman Sachs. I earned an MBA from Webster University, Vienna, Austria, and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Bombay, India.