Integrity: First Among Virtues

My subject today is integrity. I have chosen it because it is first among all virtues, and because each day we seem to have more and more examples of lapses in integrity, often with massive consequences.

Keynote Address by Nic Frangos, Director, Global Equities on 5 April at Regenesys

Leaders and celebrities just do not seem to get the direct connection between choices and consequences.

We see Olympic athletes barred for taking performance-enhancing drugs to cheat on their opponents; the President of South Korea removed from office for bribery; Bill Cosby charged with drugging and sexually assaulting women; government ministers continually appointed without credentials as if knowledge is not relevant; decisions made at the highest levels which are self-serving and not in the interests of the people; bankers cheat on currency trades, and corruption (the abuse of office for private gain) has become rife in our country. Temptation and greed too often trump moral principle.

It is clear that a lack of integrity is at the heart of much of our problems. Many care more about winning and their own agendas than playing by the rules. Too many of us neither mean what we say nor say what we mean.

It is opportune, in this critical environment, to question our values, especially to an audience who are starting their lives, with so much rich potential ahead of them. You will discover in the fullness of time that acting with principle gives clarity and peace of mind, and that if you compromise your integrity – you dent your reputation. It is not only possible to succeed in life with integrity, but it is more fulfilling. Integrity gives you a North Star to steer your life and guide your judgments.

The word integrity comes from the Latin integer, meaning a sense of wholeness. Applied to us it means a person undivided, someone who is not subject to conflicting loyalties and agendas.

I love the definition of integrity framed by Stephen Carter Professor at Law, Yale University.

He says that integrity has three components:

  • Discerning what is right and what is wrong.
  • Acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost and in the presence of risk.
  • Saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.

The first requires moral reflectiveness, and listening to the voice of conscience. We should however recognize that our own beliefs, which are not necessarily correct, can often lead us astray. The second requires keeping commitments. The third means you are unashamed of doing right, and takes courage.

All three are necessary. Integrity is also the basis of trust.

If integrity has an opposite it is corruption, that is, getting away with things we know to be wrong. Corruption is corrosive because it is a win-lose game. In political corruption it is the people, generally the poor, who lose most.

Many leaders across all fields need courses in moral development. The 100 years of liberation struggle produced many leaders who developed a capacity to sacrifice all for the sake of a principle, human dignity and liberty in the face of an oppressive system. It was a motive lined with integrity. This naturally ought to have produced a strong desire to improve the quality of life for all after liberation.

It was after all the implicit goal of liberation. But the liberation movement failed to properly evolve into a political party, and produce a coherent blueprint of a comprehensive economic and social strategy to improve the quality of life. Other agendas surfaced which conflicted with the interests of the people. The current situation that South Africa is in bears testimony to this.

Yet, people and people alone are the reason that there is a South Africa. Politicians tend to forget this. They have been warned many times, and by no less than Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Integrity is the basis of trust. And politics without trust is simply a war for power. The people are becoming angry.

It is an error to judge the integrity of politics by the integrity of certain politicians. It is axiomatic that bad behavior occurs more often than good in politics. Often people wielding political power serve themselves first and the people second. But, we can and should be able to rise above the mediocrity that has set in. What matters more in the long run is the integrity of voters.

Specifically, this means the willingness of citizens to envisage a national purpose and then to vote consistently in ways that will further it. We are a long way off this because of the lack of integrity in leadership, the massive unemployment, declining education system, and sheer poverty. The lack of decent economic growth exacerbates the problem.

The day will come when a leader will come to the fore, who is able to muster support from the people for a purpose and vision, which will improve the quality of life and gain the country global respect. This cannot be done without moral leadership.

In business and politics there is often a lack of integrity at the top. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” is how Benjamin Franklin described it. Governance codes, the constitution, and the law are always insufficient when integrity is lacking. Here, what works for those at the top usually works against those at the bottom. When misdemeanours occur the burden of proof is not on the wrongdoers, and any method to avoid the Day of Judgment is deployed.

If integrity, however, thrives at the top the controls are not necessary. Self-control will rule the day. The ethical leader knows the difference between right and wrong. Thus, there is always either too much or too little checks and balances. It has yet to be recognized that integrity is a state of mind. We must become much better at selecting our leaders throughout society if we want a thriving environment.

Ultimately, it will be to you and your generation that the challenge will fall. And, whether or not you rise to the challenge will determine whether and when this highly talented nation is able to reach its potential. Integrity will be centre stage.

Nic Frangos: Director, Global Equities at the Regenesys Business School graduation, Johannesburg, 5 April 2017.

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