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Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Leading with integrity is a commitment to act consistently and to embody sound ethical values in all business dealings. A successful leader who models integrity at work sets an example for others to follow.

When I interviewed Fulton Breen, CEO of XS, Inc., it was clear from our conversation that he is a man who represents the lens through which he views the world. On the company’s website it states “the culture we have created is what drives every aspect of what we do,” and it is evident in the design of their office and, literally, the writing on the walls. Breen’s guiding framework is the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. “I have always looked at the cardinal virtues as a nice summary of things to think about when you are making decisions or acting a certain way. I like them because they are easy to remember, dependable, and weather the test of time.”

The cardinal virtues were first described by Plato in the Republic, which was written around 380 B.C. “Prudence would be the most important one, general common sense or wisdom, either from your own experience or from people you trust who know better than you.” It is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly what is right and what is wrong in any given situation. “Identifying the problem, seeking counsel, and taking advice, is kind of the definition of prudence.”

Justice is the constant determination to treat everyone appropriately and with respect. Fortitude allows us to overcome fear and to remain steady in the face of obstacles. “The thing that guides you along the way would be fortitude — having the courage to do things that you need to do.” The fourth virtue is temperance, which is the balancing factor. It is the virtue that attempts to keep us from excess. “You have always got the full set of desirable behaviors at hand. If you can identify your root imperfection and then deal with fixing it using the opposing virtue, then that, in my opinion, is the best thing you can focus on to be the best leader you can be.”

As a leader you cannot set policies that employees need to live by and not live by them yourself. “Values cut through hierarchy. They apply to all of us. They apply to the entire organization whether you are the CEO or you are the new hire.” At its core, a company’s purpose or mission is a bold affirmation of its reason for being in business. Leaders and managers have to talk about mission and purpose on an ongoing basis, encouraging employees to ask questions and providing them with examples of what living the mission looks like. ”There are a million different ways to express the spirit of the law — by what you say, by how you behave. You have to constantly reinforce it.” Having a strong mission and purpose instills a sense of pride in employees. They want to understand how their jobs fit into the grander scheme of things (Gallup Summit, 2016).

At XS, Inc. the culture of the organization is based on six values that support the mission of the company and the cardinal virtues. Those values are:

  • Dream Big (Fortitude) - having the courage to take risks, make mistakes, foster innovation, and develop professionally
  • Work Hard (Temperance) – producing quality output and going the extra mile to get things done 
  • Have Fun (Temperance) – celebrating wins with humor and camaraderie
  • Play Fair (Justice) – having integrity and treating one another with respect
  • Speak Out (Prudence) – speaking your mind with conviction and being the catalyst for idea generation
  • Stay Sharp (Prudence) – constantly learning, adapting, growing, and seeking improvement

“There is constant repetition of the values that we care about,” Breen said. “Somehow that gives people permission to challenge a group. It is the antidote to group think. It has got to be an active engagement that you do every day. You lead by example but you also have to have the mechanisms in place. It is inward brand management.”

Breen seeks continual self-improvement by taking time daily for humble introspection. “Try to focus on being the best you can be. Give it some guidelines, some framework you can use for yourself, and then just act upon it.” For leaders, establishing a set of true values, communicating them consistently, integrating them into all business dealings, and rewarding employees for adhering and embracing them is the formula for success. 

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying: “There are seven things that will destroy us: wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; religion without sacrifice; politics without principle; science without humanity; business without ethics.” I think that characterizes Fulton Breen’s philosophy about leading with integrity. It is a powerful message for all leaders.

Deborah Fernandez

Deborah Fernandez is president a consulting firm that enables corporations and individuals to achieve enhanced performance.

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