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Why individual integrity is a fundamental value in police leaders

As our nation struggles with the current uneasy state of police-community relations, police officers — and police leaders — who can instill community trust through their personal integrity are valuable assets

The study of leadership — and the traits of a good leader — can be traced back thousands of years to the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC) who spoke to ethical practices in leadership. For example:

“[To] do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.” — Aristotle, Ethics II.9

In simpler, more modern terms, consider the words of a speaker — whose name is long lost to memory — I heard a few years ago addressing integrity in policing:

“You don’t lose your integrity, you give it away.”

There is great truth in this simple statement. Integrity seems to be lacking among many leaders today, yet, ironically, integrity and other moral standards are core themes among the various leadership styles currently promoted. Let’s examine how personal integrity is a fundamental value in police leaders.

From Theory to Practice
Many of the leadership theories promoted today include words that directly or indirectly speak to ethical behavior as the core of the leadership philosophy, or other personal traits. Principle-centered, authentic, morals-based, values-based, adaptive, true north, transformative, and servant are all terms found in the lexicon of modern leadership thinking.

It might appear that all you have to do is embrace one of these leadership “styles” and viola, you are a leader. The study of leadership theory and practice should be embraced by those who seek to be effective leaders, but no single theory of leadership is perfect — which is why they are theories, not rules.

Leadership is practiced by individuals even when these individuals are part of a larger organization (which may have an articulated leadership style), a leadership team, or even when working in a collaborative (or peer) environment.

How we, as individuals, practice our leadership is where the rubber of leadership theory hits the hard road of reality. It is not citing the latest book on leadership that motivates others to accept our influence, it is how they view our actions — past and present — that gain their respect. This is where integrity comes into play.

Personal Integrity in Police Leaders
Consider two examples of how personal integrity is intertwined with our practice of leadership in law enforcement. The first example illustrates the role of integrity in a group environment, while the second illustrates how integrity impacts the lowest common denominator in leadership — when one person in a leadership position holds power over another person.

When working as part of a collaborative group, our actions reflect not only on the organization we represent, they reflect upon us as individuals as well. In this type of environment, your integrity can be measured by others through simple actions such as your level of active engagement. For example, are you being open and honest about the intentions of your organization? Do you promptly follow through on actions you promise to take?

Seemingly simple actions can take on larger meanings. As a police officer working as part of a collaborative team your actions will likely be interpreted on three levels:

1. As “the police” in general
2. As the police department you represent
3. As an individual

It is worth keeping in mind how your simple actions — or inaction — speak to your level of integrity on each of these three levels. As our nation struggles with the current uneasy state of police-community relations police officers — and police leaders — who can instill community trust through their personal integrity are valuable assets. Those who cannot do so are liabilities.

For the second example, think of the traditional superior and subordinate relationship. In this example, the integrity practiced by the superior sets the standard (or, rather, should set the standard) for all subordinates.

At the most basic level, leadership requires a minimum of two people — one who “leads” and one who “follows.” The superior with poor integrity will likely never have the true trust and respect of their subordinates.

Most of us can recall instances where a superior reprimanded a subordinate for doing something while that same superior had, in the past, made a similar transgression. When this happens we talk about double-standards, hypocrisy, and ultimately, poor leadership. Those who desire leadership roles — or are currently in leadership roles — should keep this example in mind. How will others see you when it comes to your personal integrity?

Individual Interpretations of Integrity
The cumbersome part of this discussion is that integrity — like all traits — is open to interpretation. What some might define as poor integrity others may view as non-issues. For example, should the way a person acts in their personal life have any bearing on their leadership role at work?

In the end, how we choose to lead our own lives — and interpret how others live their lives — is itself a question of integrity. Leaders must be willing to consider how they define integrity, and how they wish to have their own integrity measured. Practicing a life of integrity is challenging, but it is a critical trait of a noble, effective leader.

John Vanek is a leadership, collaboration, and anti-human trafficking consultant and speaker working with law enforcement agencies, non-governmental and community-based organizations, academic institutions and private sector companies. John served 25 years with the San Jose Police Department (retiring in the rank of lieutenant), holds a Master of Arts in Leadership, and is an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Contact John Vanek