Principled Advice

I’m not going to claim here that I’m more principled than the next person – you can judge me based on what I do and say.

But don’t judge what you don’t understand, and to help you understand me, I will say these things about how I see principles and ethics…

What is integrity?

I will start with ‘integrity’ – the only label in business that might be as misused as the word ‘strategic’!
I’m not sure how well understood the word ‘integrity’ is; sometimes it seems to be used as a substitute for ‘honest’ (which it does have some link to), or even just ‘doing the right thing’.

C.S. Lewis said, “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no-one is watching“.

But what is the ‘right’ thing to do?  Does it mean following rules or ‘principles’?  That’s easy when it’s easy, but too often ‘principles’ are used as the last-refuge rules for cowards to hide behind when they lack the courage or will to question things and do what is really ‘right’.  What matters is what you do when competing rules & principles come into conflict with each other – which way will you go when different principles point in opposite directions?

For example:
  • Are ‘your people your greatest asset’ if employing and looking after them all comes into conflict with other organisational objectives such as avoiding financial waste or environmental damage?

  • Should priests maintain confidentiality about confessions of serious crimes?  What about lesser sins?

  • Thou shalt not kill’ seems an important principle, but is it always so?

  • If honesty matters, should you still tell the truth even if it will only make things worse for everyone (except perhaps relieving your guilt)?  Or then again, how many ‘white lies’ become a bad thing?

  • Do the means justify the ends?  Or does how we live and treat others (the means) matter more than what we achieve (the ends)?

Note I’m not advocating that someone with integrity picks the ‘right’ rules and then lives strictly by them – quite the opposite.  The important things in life often involve ethical dilemmas where the best thing to do for everyone may well be to ‘break the rules’.  How do you decide?  With difficulty!  But that’s where integrity can help – you turn to yourself and the values that matter most to you, and do your best to make the decision that is most consistent with your values.  Integrity is about acting true to, or in harmony with the values or principles that you believe in and say matter to you (& being honest about it when you fail to do so).  You say what you believe and do what you say; it makes you a consistently whole (integrated) person, and may be considered the opposite of hypocrisy.  To return to C.S. Lewis’ definition, it’s doing the right thing when no-one is watching, not simply because you don’t have to as you won’t get caught, but because you are the only person who can judge whether you’re doing the “right thing”.

In principle at least, if honesty is not an important value for you, then you could show great integrity (to whatever are your key values) whilst telling an awful lot of lies!  This is why I don’t give much credence to organisations that claim ‘integrity’ is one of their key values – because inevitably any organisation with hundreds of people in it will contain every value under the sun, each being more or less important to one person or the other, so any contentious decisions the CEO makes are bound to threaten the values and integrity of some people in the organisation.

My priority values

So, you might reasonably ask if you want to engage me, what are my values?  Well of course I have many, all of which I’m sure are in common with 99% of the world’s population, but since doing the Landmark Forum (Advanced course), what guides me most in life is ‘Compassionate Leadership’ – which means having the courage to put the welfare of others before me (even when it’s difficult), and to set an example to those around me with forgiveness for others’ human failings.  Do I always succeed and make the ‘right’ decision?  No, but I always try to be mindful of these values when I’m making difficult decisions – so I can at least promise you that in my approach to assisting you and working on your challenges.

Perhaps more importantly, what are not amongst my highest priority values?  Well, generally speaking the following will come second to my quest to transform organisations and deliver value to society as a whole:

  • Not rocking the boat, maintaining stability/the status quo, dare I say, showing tact and respect for ‘how we’ve always done things’
    – apologies in advance, but I place greater value on directness & clarity (or even blunt honesty!)
    I will call things as I see them, especially if I think standards currently being applied are unacceptable, because I dare to imagine and believe we can do better! (& sometimes I’m impatient for that to happen sooner than later!)

  • Being decisive.  Did I really just say that?  Yes, because as important as it is for me to provide compelling advice for a clear decision, it’s not so important that I’ll hide important competing evidence that I’m aware of.  My aim is to be ruthlessly objective with the evidence and both your and my preconceived views about what may be the best decision (although of course analysis may end up supporting these views).  As Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind” (the wonderful thing about this approach is that you can never be wrong for more than a brief instant!).  I’m not interested in writing reports commissioned to ‘justify’ a predetermined view.

  • Presentation style.  Yes it matters, but substance matters more.

I’m not saying these things don’t matter at all (that’s the essence of value trade-offs) – I will of course try to be sensitive, yet clear, compelling and decisive in everything I do, but if push comes to shove, you know what matters most!

For some more technical examples of the above ‘principles’ and other approaches that I try to follow in my work (in transport especially) see here for my ‘Seven Habits for Economically Efficient Infrastructure Planning’ (yes, with the title copied from Steven Covey’s most excellent ‘7 Habits of Highly Successful People’).


Principled advisory services from your friendly neighbourhood Principal Advisor!