#3 Integrity: Counting Down the Top 7 Principles for Federal Leadership

#3 Integrity: Counting Down the Top 7 Principles for Federal Leadership

Integrity, perhaps Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart would have said, is hard to define in words, but he knew it when he saw it. Justice Stewart was referring to something else when he famously wrote “I know it when I see it” in a 1964 obscenity case opinion. But it is true that integrity, though indeed amorphous, is visible.

We see integrity when politicians do the right thing.

In fact, it may be easier to see integrity with our own eyes than to discern it by any other means. We certainly can see integrity better than what we can ascertain by listening to statements on a campaign trail. We certainly can see it in reality better than we can predict it from the promises a candidate makes. And we certainly can see it better than we can learn it from what one candidate says about the opposing candidate.

Integrity is something Principle Based Politics wants to see more from the leaders of our federal government. So much so that we rank it third-highest on our list of leadership principles.

Strong Moral Principles

A person is said to have integrity if she or he adheres to strong moral principles.* Moral principles, in turn, go to right and wrong. We believe the essential protocol for a politician is painfully simple: (1) Figure out the right thing to do, and (2) do it. The “right thing” means the best thing for the people of the United States as a whole.

*Some dictionaries substitute the word has in their definition, as in, “a person who has strong moral principles.” We think they mean “adheres to.” Giving the lexicographers the benefit of the doubt, we will assume they would call this a distinction without a difference, given that the only real evidence of having a principle is the adherence to it, as we said above. At any rate, anything that contains the word principle, we like, so we will accept the above definition.

Doing the right thing, and thereby demonstrating integrity, includes doing something that may cost the politician some votes in the next election. Conversely, it includes not doing something that will win votes but is unethical. Integrity includes refusing to be pushed in the wrong direction by lobbyists. It also includes ignoring major donors if they want you to do something for them that would hurt the country at large. And it includes standing up to the leaders of your political party if they pressure you to act in a way that may help the party in the short term but harm others unnecessarily.

Wanting to attain or retain power is not a moral principle. Monetary gain is not a moral principle. Feeding your narcissistic needs is not a moral principle. Nor is wanting your “blue” or “red” team to stymie, resist, embarrass, or thwart the other. Voters can see integrity in candidates and sitting officeholders by whether they stand up for what is right and just, irrespective of the political consequences.

But here is an interesting thing about knowing integrity when you see it: from the vantagepoint of the politician, integrity does not depend on being seen. Actions with integrity are not taken to be seen at all. Integrity is most manifest when an action is taken in private, without fanfare, and the right thing is done even if no one else will ever see it or know about it.

Tone at the top is important for any organization, and political and government organizations can have—or not have—integrity just like individuals do. The concept of tone at the top recognizes that the leaders of an entity set the ethical and moral standard for all within the entity. Others watch their institutional leaders and follow their lead. When the institution in focus is the United States of America, everyone in the country (and the world) watches what the leaders do. And, like children do when watching their parents, we often replicate the conduct we see, whether we intend to or not. Parents and presidents alike are teaching and are role models, for better or for worse.


An argument can be made for either corruption, dishonesty, or hypocrisy being the opposite of integrity. Maybe you can think of other choices. Some might say disingenuousness, which evokes insincerity, might be the right antonym for integrity.

Corruption fits well because it gets at the (im)moral motives underpinning an action. Dishonesty also makes a good choice because honesty certainly is a moral principle, and a dishonest person patently does not have integrity of thought and action.

Hypocrisy may not as precisely fill the bill when looking for the opposite of integrity, but hypocrisy definitely is close. The word references preaching moral standards but not following them in practice. We think of a hypocrite as one who holds others to a different standard than he holds himself. “Do as I say, not as I do,” would be a hypocrite’s oath.*

*Sorry, this was a bad attempt at humor. Please do not be confused with the Hippocratic oath for doctors.

Breaking news: We should try not to elect hypocrites to federal office. They will take positions like crime should be punished, but they will not conduct themselves lawfully. Or, they will say Senate procedural rules must be honored…except when to do so would impede their (or their party’s) own political plans. During a pandemic, hypocritical governors will issue mask mandates or stay-at-home orders, but then not wear a mask or stay home. Such conduct injures the country, mostly in that it sets a bad example for us all. This undermines confidence in government, in democracy.

Hypocrisy is not the tone at the top we need. Integrity is.

Top 7 Principles for Federal Leadership (hover over list for links to posts on previous principles)



3.   Integrity

4.   Peace

5.   Service

6.   Dignity

7.   Understanding

Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics.

Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.

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