Integrity at Scale
Widening our sense of obligation
We’ve had an unprecedented flurry of new sign-ups in the last couple of weeks, which means we have many new folks with us today. Welcome! Since so many of you are new to this conversation, I thought we’d back up a little to review some basic concepts. But with a slightly new twist, so all my returning folks get some goodness as well. Embedded in the text will be links to previous posts that expand on various aspects of our conversation if you want to take a deeper dive, which I hope you do. Now, onward!
This entire project is about integrity, but what is integrity exactly? A single, comprehensive, narrative definition doesn’t exist, so I wrote my own:
Integrity is a lifelong practice of integration and alignment of the true self with right action in relationship to other people and the wider world, guided by an obligation to something larger than the individual. This integration and alignment are achieved through developing habits of discernment, emotional intelligence, and an acceptance of consequences, allowing for consistent, truthful interaction with self and others regardless of circumstance.
Is it a little wordy? Yes. But I did say “comprehensive”…
Integrity as a practice, as opposed to an aspect of character that can simply be attained and then it’s yours for the keeping, is a concept we talk about frequently here. “Something larger than the individual” can be divinity, a spiritual sense of connection and obligation amongst all people, or more secular affinities— like science or democracy. The important bit is that in your most private moments of accountability there is something bigger to which you feel you answer. Otherwise, you’re attempting to follow a moral compass without a true north, which just leaves you lost in the wilderness. I often refer to this as “the transcendent”, but if you don’t personally care for that vocabulary, no worries. How you language it is your business.
Discernment, as opposed to simply deciding things, is an essential aspect of the practice of integrity, and itself takes practice. It has five steps, in no particular order: bowing to the transcendent, seeking counsel from trusted advisors, inventorying your duties and responsibilities, understanding your needs and desires, and reviewing your capacities. If you’re not habituated to discernment, it can feel like a heavy undertaking, but it does get easier, I promise. With repetition, in my experience, it becomes so ingrained that you are more often in discernment than out of it. It transforms the way you approach decision-making throughout your life.
I discussed emotional intelligence just two weeks ago, and will again, I’m sure. Without emotional intelligence, it is nearly impossible to stay on track with our integrity practice. We get stuck in an emotionally reactive place and end up hurting ourselves or other people. Will we always manage our emotions well once we’ve developed some emotional intelligence? I can personally testify, that would be a no. But we can get re-oriented again afterward and clean up our mess, which means more, in the end, than whether we never screw up.
What I want to talk about at more length today is how integrity is relational— it being about the moral quality of how we bump up against each other personally and collectively. In other words, integrity isn’t just for individuals. It’s also for communities, corporations, and governments (even if it is unheard of for governments outside of Bhutan to have emotional intelligence).
Remember how I said that part of discernment is inventorying your duties and responsibilities? Another way to say that is: reviewing and considering who you’re obligated to and what impact you have on them. The wider your sense of obligation the more careful your decisions will be (like the Haudenosaunee idea of seven generations), but this tempering of singular desires (by individuals or groups) is counterintuitive to our individualistic culture.
It’s not impossible, however. I’ll tell you a story.
I have this recurring spring freelance gig working for an organization that provides unbiased reports on progressive shareholder proposals coming up for a vote at spring corporate meetings. This last week I finished a report on Coca-Cola. For many years, Coca-Cola has been asked by some shareholders to take responsibility for the impact that selling sugary drinks has on the obesity epidemic and public health. Consumers and governments have also raised these concerns, which has resulted in the company taking steps in the last handful of years to change its approach somewhat. They’ve reformulated many beverage recipes to reduce sugar, expanded their low- and no-sugar product lines, offered their high-calorie and high-sugar products in smaller portions, and put limits on the extent to which they market to children under the age of 12. These efforts, it must be said, put them ahead of many other companies in their industry.
However, the majority of their sales worldwide are still attributable to high-calorie, high-sugar products with no real nutritional value. Coca-Cola makes a shit-ton (technical term) of money off these products. So, this year some shareholders are taking a new tack in their approach to affecting company strategy. Instead of simply focusing on the relationship between excess sugar consumption and poor health outcomes, they are focusing on the relationship between public health and stock market health. The World Health Organization has shown that “the social burdens of obesity” annually reduce GDP (gross domestic product) by approximately 3%. This means that when Coca-Cola uses sugary drinks to increase its profits it is, at the same time, negatively affecting global economic health, and by extension, its investors’ diversified stock portfolios.
The shareholder proponents (actual technical term) aren’t asking Coca-Cola not to sell sugary drinks. They’re asking Coca-Cola to commission a report on the impact of its products and strategy on the overall economies of the countries in which it operates, given its impacts on public health, so the company and its investors can think more critically about a wider sense of corporate obligation. In other words, they’re asking for more integrity from the company.
This might seem like the opposite of capitalism, and it is the opposite of the unbridled capitalism of the United States, for sure. Historically, the idea of multiple bottom lines— economic, social, and environmental— has been the realm of more collective economic structures, like co-operatives. But since 2007 there has existed the notion of B-corporations— companies that go through rigorous certification concerning their social and environmental impacts in order to ensure they are balancing profit and purpose. Trying to introduce B-corp frameworks into a massive global corporation that has never committed to them might be trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, but it’s worth a try, right?
Another example, which is more personal: I was talking to a friend the other day about my plans to convert my garage into a tiny house so that when my kids move out I can live in it and rent my big, rambling house. She raised the idea of using the house as an AirBnB, as opposed to a year-round rental. Setting aside the fact that I am a poor housekeeper with questionable customer service skills, which would make such an enterprise painful for everyone, my small city is desperately in need of affordable housing. My sense of obligation to my community comes into play, therefore, when considering how to manage my house. I would rather set a rent that would only allow me to cover the mortgage, taxes, and some small amount for upkeep, which would put my house at the low end of the market rate, making it affordable for a low- to middle-income family, than use it as a significant income stream. My discernment tells me that’s better for my community, which is better for me.
I wouldn’t necessarily be out of my integrity if I followed my friend’s suggestion, depending on how I accomplished it. Relatedly, Coca-Cola would be in its integrity by commissioning the report called for by shareholders and truly considering it as they formulate strategy, whatever strategy they formulate in response. It’s not simply about what we decide, but how we decide it. The wider the web of relationships we consider in our discernment, the more integrity our decisions are likely to have— as individuals, communities, companies, and societies.
For you new folks, know that most of what you’ll encounter here in the newsletter is about my personal journey to practice integrity, which means a lot of discussion of relationships, parenting, and personal development. But periodically, be prepared for me to widen the lens because I don’t think practicing integrity is just about our individual lives. The point of developing our personal integrity is so that we have the fortitude to stand up when necessary to bring more integrity to the wider world.
Despite the assertions of conservatives, resources do not trickle down. But I believe integrity trickles up and I’m here to help us all figure out how to be a part of that. I’m so glad to have you join us.