A Quick Guide To “Having Integrity”


What does “having integrity” actually mean? I suspect you guys can’t answer that question very easily. Not to worry, because I imagine most adults much older than you can’t either.

Dictionary definitions usually mention something to the effect of being honest and “firmly adhering to sound moral principles.” Wha?

Let’s get practical here.

It’s easy to “have integrity” when there’s no conflict or problem facing you. But what do you do when faced with a problem, especially one that you caused? This is when things get real.

How do you respond when you screw up and cause others trouble?

If you’re a man of integrity, you do this:

1. Take ownership of your contribution to the problem.

2. Apologize for the contribution you made to the problem, and end with the sentence “How can I make it right?”

3. Offer no excuses for your behavior, only your best guess at suggested next steps to fix the problem.

Boiled down further (and in few enough words that you could write it on a post-it and put it on your bathroom mirror to stare at every morning):

1. Own the problem
2. Apologize for real
3. Give only solutions

All of this requires a great deal of mental fortitude and self-discipline. You’re going to want to squirm your way out of all of this. But it’s the only way to build authentic trust in other people.

Quick life hint: The people who are most trustworthy in this world are NOT the ones who never screw up. Anyone who seems like this is just hiding failures really well and will get exposed eventually.

The most trustworthy people are those for whom others know where they stand. They know what they’re getting each time they see you, including that you’ll have a conversation with them when you’ve let them down.

Here’s an actual example of an email exchange I had with my boss (technically, the head of school where I work):

Head of School:

Hi, Ben.
After sending the email below, S____, who works out of room 106, emailed me to note that his office after the Friday morning benchmark had been left unlocked and in disarray. Thankfully, nothing was broken or missing, but he was concerned about it enough to write and noted that we got lucky with some of the donor-related info he has lying around and on his machine. I think you proctored in his office. Is that right?
If yes, then this is simply a heads up to be a lot more vigilant next time. if you need support or tips or have a particularly tricky kid, please reach out.

My response:

Completely my fault, and thank you for following up directly with me. I hadn’t connected your previous email to my situation because I was not in a classroom.

I have no excuses here and don’t need any tips or strategies. I simply prepped the room for my student ahead of him arriving by moving S___’s piles of paper and various items out of the way and never returned them to their proper places. I can assure you that the student didn’t have anything to do with the state of the office, just me.

As for not locking it, that’s possibly even more egregious. I’ll do better next time.

I hope it’s okay if I follow up with him directly to apologize, by email or in-person.

His response back:

Thanks, Ben. For the honesty and ownership.
Your following up is your call. Fine w me. S_____ doesn’t need or expect anything.

Do you think this was easy for me? No! When I first got that email from the Head of School, I was reading it on my phone before going to bed. I distinctly remember immediately getting a queasy feeling in my stomach and my heart racing. I felt ashamed, frustrated with myself, and worried about what it all meant for my reputation with my boss.

But then I just closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and said to myself “I’ll know what to write in the morning after a good night’s sleep.”

Then I went to bed, trusting I could take care of this, but knowing it wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t, but in the end I did what was right, and things are right again with the world. Funny how that works.


About Ben Keeler

Ben is the founder of YMN, a former teacher and coach, and an unabashed baseball fanatic. Go Nats!

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