The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity. Proverbs 11:3
A common definition of integrity, a central character trait of any good leader, is “to do the right thing when no one else is looking.” The phrase voices an expectation that a leader’s decisions aren’t just for his own good, but also for the common good; acting not merely for self-interest but out of selfless intent, and certainly unconcerned about receiving credit.
But the idea of doing “the right thing” brings up a more important question, and that is, how does one know “the right thing” to do in any given situation? Is there always at least one “right thing”? And does doing “right” mean we always look for the good of others, or the common good, or in some cases to our own good? Integrity, really, is simply maintaining a consistency in morals-based action in all areas of life. One can have integrity and be a criminal, if he acts with criminal intent regularly and reliably.
The type of integrity we desire as a character trait, though, is the man who “does the right thing” with unwavering commitment. Proverbs speaks to those who lack integrity as the “unfaithful” who are “destroyed by their duplicity”. The idea conveyed is that one who lacks integrity will seem two-faced, repointing their moral compass with the direction of the moment. So how does one know or find “the right thing”, in any given situation? Let me suggest three practical questions of self-examination:
Is it consistent with God’s moral standard? Any standard of right and wrong must begin with a moral foundation. A moral is simply a high standard for proper conduct. In order to know whether something is moral, one must work from a code of conduct set forth by a moral entity and set forth in a moral code. Basically to follow a moral, you must first have to place your trust in the foundation on which the moral is based. There is no easier and better example of this than the Bible. Throughout God’s Word we find countless examples of moral standards. Put God first. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. And then more developmental principles. Obey your father and mother. Don’t be jealous. Honor the Sabbath day. Follow Jesus. Make disciples. Be generous.
The Bible contains descriptions of both the law’s standards, and a lifestyle of grace. These morals are set against the character of Almighty God. The Bible makes a significant percentage of choices in our current culture clearly “right” or “wrong”. The Bible is also a complex work, so integrity demands a leader should be an avid student of God’s Word, so that he knows the context of the moral principles being conveyed. The first place to weigh “the right thing” is on the scale of Scripture.
Are the consequences, to the best of your knowledge, just and honorable? Determining right also means considering the repercussions of your action or inaction. Something may be legally right but morally wrong. It may be right according to rule of law, for instance, to remove a homeless man from a park bench. But would that really be the right thing to do? The better play is to find the man some help, if possible. Consequences are rather easy to spur you to action on “the right thing” when it’s a matter of hunger, or clothing, or illness, or another simple physical need. But it becomes decidedly more difficult when called on to support a family member who wants an abortion, or to sign off on a questionable business deal because you need to meet your sales goal.
Have you sought wise counsel and given adequate reflection? Finally, the right thing to do, if it does not come to you immediately, may often be found in the wise counsel of Christian brothers, or on sound consideration over time. Proverbs 28:26 says, “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” When faced with a decision that requires wisdom and experience, look to those around you who make wise choices. Seek out advice, weigh it against the Word of God, and add that knowledge to your decision making.
Further, the right thing, if it is a difficult thing, may not be a hurried exercise. Proverbs 19:2 says, “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” The instruction is clear: collect the needed information and make informed decisions. Get in a rush and you’ll often miss the mark.