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A matter of honour

School leadership is dependent on integrity. Yet although most observers would agree with this statement, we are perhaps less certain about what we collectively mean by such a word.

Robert Burns 1786 poem Epistle to a Young Friend includes the lines: "The fear o' hell's a hangman's whip to haud the wretch in order; But where ye feel your honour grip, let that aye be your border."

Burns' poetry suggests that there are two ways in which our behaviour is controlled: on the one hand through the threat of hell, and on the other by the desire to maintain our "honour".

Unfortunately, Rabbie's own behaviour often fell far short of what might be deemed appropriate - especially in his dalliances with the opposite sex. Certainly he would have failed to live up to C S Lewis' famous definition: "Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching."

Of course, this introduces the notion of integrity being dependent on what constitutes the "right thing", when we know that varies according to cultures and historical eras.

Nevertheless, it would appear that integrity is connected to a set of internal moral and ethical guidelines that inform behaviour and which are much more than simple compliance with the law. Albert Camus explored this when he argued that "integrity has no need of rules".

This idea was picked up by A L Minkes and his colleagues, who suggested that ethical behaviour is concerned with "ought" and "ought not", not just "must" and "must not". In other words, integrity is driven by personal choice and commitment - where the individual is answerable to themselves, as opposed to any external scrutiny, rule or law.

Integrity in these terms appears to be a commitment to abide by a morally justifiable set of principles and values. Abraham Lincoln captured this most eloquently when he said: "We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called on to perform what we cannot."

In his own inimitable fashion, Lincoln is describing integrity as a commitment to ensure that our behaviour matches our rhetoric.

Integrity is not a conditional word, which can be deployed according to the circumstances. It defines you as a person and provides others with confidence in your authenticity.

Yet a person with integrity does not define themselves by telling others they have it. Integrity is a quality that is lived out, day to day and with absolute consistency - and in those terms can only ever be an aspiration.

With that in mind, I'll conclude with a quotation from one of the 20th century's most perverse business philosophers. Using his own species of reverse logic, the great J R Ewing demonstrates the power of principles to shape our behaviour: "Once you get rid of integrity, the rest is a piece of cake."

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at Drummond International, and honorary professor of leadership at Queen Margaret University

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