Ethics, Leadership, Organizational Behavior

A New Year’s Resolution for Integrity

By Bob Bruner-

Abbott: Well, let’s see, we have on the bags, Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…
Costello: That’s what I want to find out.
Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.
Costello: Are you the manager?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: You gonna be the coach too?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names.
Abbott: Well I should.
Costello: Well then who’s on first?

Abbott & Costello Who’s On First?

1.1.11. A date like today’s naturally leads us to think about what is first in our lives. Where do we place our priorities and why? In other words, who (or what) is on first?

The frequent answers deal with health (the source of many New Year’s Day resolutions), family, loved ones, and so on. One’s work and the workplace environment show up considerably farther down the list, if at all. Here, at the start of 2011, I would like to suggest that personal integrity in all you do should vie for #1.

First, integrity underpins virtually all of the other New Year’s Day resolutions you might make. Want to lose weight this year? You need to be honest with yourself about the difference between what your appetite wants versus what your body needs. Want a strong relationship with someone or a strong faith? It probably starts with keeping promises. Want to rid yourself of a bad habit? You have to practice the right habits rather than just talk. Want to learn something new? You have to study. Honesty, reliability, and tangible demonstrations for values are manifestations of integrity.

Second, your peers need your integrity. Warren Buffett annually reminds employees at Berkshire Hathaway how vitally important are ethics and integrity in all they do. He wrote, ““We can afford to lose money. We can afford to lose a lot of money. But we cannot afford to lose one shred of our reputation. Make sure everything you do can be reported on the front page of your local newspaper written by an unfriendly, but intelligent reporter.”[1] A truism in management and family life is “if you can’t talk about it, it won’t get done.” Making progress on anything important is not a matter of giving orders: one must communicate, engage, enlist, and inspire others. So it is with creating a community of integrity. The best leaders get this and use plenty of opportunities to talk about integrity in the workplace. Last fall, the faculty and staff completed the first climate survey in 20 years—the survey shows that trust is one of the most important values our community holds.

Third, as I wrote last year, the Darden School and the University of Virginia expect you to manage, study, lead, and work with integrity because

  • We want to create a sustainable legacy for Darden. To incorporate ethics into our workplace mindset is to think about the kind of community that we would like to live in, and that succeeding generations will inherit.
  • Ethical behavior builds trust and dividends of trust are valuable. The foremost dividend is an unimpeachable reputation. Equally important, ethics and trust build strong teams and strong leadership. Stronger teams and leaders result in more agile and creative responses to problems. Ethical behavior contributes to the strength of teams and leadership by aligning employees around shared values, and building confidence and loyalty.
  • UVA and the Darden Mission Statement call us. We share expectations that create a community of trust. Two years ago, the faculty reaffirmed the Darden Mission Statement. It commits us to graduate “principled leaders.” The Board of Visitors of the University endorsed the University Code of Ethics. It states that “We do not condone dishonesty in any form by anyone.”
  • Darden can’t afford the costs of doing otherwise. To echo Warren Buffett, we cannot afford to lose one shred of our reputation; we cannot afford to lose one talented member of our community, applicant, or corporate partner over an ethical lapse; and we cannot afford to lose our self-confidence and self-respect.

These and other reasons should motivate all of us to make personal integrity a top priority for 2011.

Here is what I ask of you in 2011. First, encourage others around you to do what’s right. We are not an “anything goes” community. We have mutual expectations for exemplary behavior. No number of messages from the Dean can top the impact of peer expectations. A community is only as strong as its most vulnerable link. Help those who may be headed in the wrong direction. Speak up for our values.

Second, if you see something, say something. The UVA Honor System provides representatives with whom students and professors can share their concerns on a confidential basis. Similarly, faculty and staff members can share concerns with senior leaders, me, Brad Holland, University Ombudsman (434- 924-7819, ombuds@virginia.edu), and/or Barbara Deily, Chief Audit Executive of the University (434-924-4110, deily@virginia.edu). The mark of a good organization is not that it never has ethical lapses, but rather what it does about them. At Darden we must get the facts and take appropriate action as fast as possible.

Several times a year, people question me on the emphasis we at Darden give to integrity. “Can you really teach MBA students about ethics—by then isn’t it too late?” “Isn’t an Honor System just window-dressing?” “In this dog-eat-dog world, isn’t all that talk about ethics just motherhood and apple pie?”

My reply is that all really high-performance organizations take integrity seriously—they talk about it regularly, and such talk starts with the CEO. Moreover, it is never too early or late to talk about integrity. People get distracted, confused, or forgetful. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s famous argument about “Who’s on first” is a classic illustration of misunderstandings that arise in conversation. We can all use conversational reminders about what is important. Darden is, and aspires to remain, a high-performance organization; for us, striving to be a community of integrity is not an afterthought; it is where that high performance starts from.

Please join me in a New Year’s resolution: a commitment to integrity in all we do at Darden in 2011.

And Happy New Year!


[1]Russ Banham, “The Warren Buffett School,” Chief Executive, December 2002, downloaded from http://www.robertpmiles.com/BuffettSchool.htm, May 19, 2003