Integrity is where good leadership begins

By David Schmidtchen

December 12, 2023

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Good leadership and integrity are not the products of social engineering. They are the characteristics of good people trying to do good for others. (Zahid/Adobe)

We want confident leaders. We admire those who are decisive and accept risk. We need leaders who make sense of complex challenges and show us what it means to persevere. Confidence is a positive and sought-after leadership characteristic.

However, any strength overdone is a weakness. Recently, we have seen a culture of leadership in business and the APS where excessive confidence has become hubris. Power and entitlement distort the leader’s perspective — a lack of empathy and dismissiveness of others’ views becomes normal behaviour. The rules are for other people.

The APS taskforce report Louder than Words positions the solution to recent leadership and integrity failures as a combination of culture, systems, and accountability. The recommendations ‘largely focus on the SES’ but acknowledge that ‘integrity requires action at all levels’.

The report advocates for building a ‘pro-integrity’ culture in the APS underpinned by compliance and accountability. However, the report notes that the APS is not seeking to ‘reinvent the wheel ‘because there is a lot of ‘good integrity practice to draw on from within agencies’.

Recent reviews of leadership and integrity failures in the Big 4 consulting firms provide the same reasoning and advice.

But if everything was already in place and only a few tweaks to the leadership climate and compliance regime were required, why have there been so many fundamental failures of leadership and integrity?

Integrity is everywhere but nowhere around me

Commissioner Catherine Holmes praised former Centrelink compliance officer Colleen Taylor as a good public servant. Her example shone all the brighter against the evidence from SES officers that led Holmes to ‘despair of the Australian Public Service’. Taylor was a public servant of integrity.

Former secretary Mike Pezzullo has left the building, having ‘breached the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct on at least 14 occasions’. Many senior public servants seemed flabbergasted when the allegations against Pezzullo first became known. Further down the hierarchy, others didn’t seem as surprised.

In parallel, politicians have enjoyed flaying the consulting industry over professional and personal integrity issues. The inquisition is not going away, with senator O’Neill, the chair of the committee, noting that the behaviour of the Big 4 executives showed they were ‘only still really cracking open the challenges’.

This seems justified as the Victorian government and EY try to explain why a business case underpinning a significant government decision was to be completed as ‘desktop research’. There are questions for the government, but there are also questions for the consultants who took on work where they knew a professionally rigorous review was not possible.

The machine model of integrity

The various reports and reviews often describe a machine-model view of integrity. The recommendations read like a repair manual for the local mechanic.

It starts with the idea that integrity refers to being ‘whole and undivided’. Internal and external consistency is the key to utility and performance. So, much like a bicycle wheel, if the parts are all in order (tyre, rim, spokes and hub), then good performance follows. For organisations, if culture, systems, and accountability are in order, then good leadership performance naturally follows.

If only that were all there was to it. Unfortunately, integrity is not a naturally emergent property of effective compliance and sound measurement.

Integrity and good leadership: it’s personal

Colleen Taylor’s warnings were ignored, and the ‘callous indifference’ to her concerns led to her retirement. For Taylor, the impact was personal.

Integrity is where good leadership starts. It is a characteristic that is admired and sought after. It is a moral virtue that speaks to good conduct, where the observable behaviour demonstrates a commitment to acting from sound moral principles. It concerns truth and is embodied in the phrase ‘frank and fearless’.

Integrity is difficult to define. But, as we have seen, a lack of integrity is a serious failing that disqualifies a person from leadership. When intelligence or charisma is valued over integrity (as it often seems to be) or when leaders who are dismissive or afraid of strong followers are promoted, a clear statement about the incentives for success is made.

But integrity is always personal. Good leaders are more than just technically competent; they are capable. They are confident in and focused on exercising judgment. They are concerned with facts and evidence but also attuned to what’s missing. They have a clear sense of their social obligations to others. This is where integrity thrives.

Bromides, profit, and responsiveness

Culture, systems, and accountability are all important, but they are focused on preserving and protecting institutional integrity. The actions become one-dimensionally focused on the control and regulation of behaviour. The objective is to avoid wrongdoing. Recent reviews of poor behaviour have shown that incentives and compliance approaches are the problem. Indeed, there is ample research evidence that compliance-based regimes lead people to be less rather than more likely to see behaviour as worthwhile.

The challenge for business and APS leaders is to move past catch-all bromides like ‘doing the right thing at the right time’ or ‘deliver the best outcomes sought by the government of the day’. At best, these are meaningless and, at worst, dangerous.

Profit in business or responsiveness in government are both crucial for performance. But when the measures for these become the focus of leadership behaviour, then, as we have seen, integrity can be sacrificed.

Profit and responsiveness do not define purpose. This is not why people come to work. They are not a cause, explanation or rationale for decision-making or behaviour. They are an incidental measure of successful leadership.

Colleen Taylor was faithful to the obligations of good public service. She had the confidence and personal integrity to speak up and felt a strong social obligation to protect the APS from doing the wrong thing. Senior leaders should have addressed her views but were unwilling to listen to views contrary to theirs.

Good leadership and integrity are not the products of social engineering. They are the characteristics of good people trying to do good for others.



The Mandarin’s upcoming conference: Rebuilding trust and integrity in the Australian Public Service, 22 February 2024, QT Canberra 


The public servant who restored Holmes’ faith in the APS

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