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Who Are You in Private?


In 1944, during WWII, German prisoners of war came to work on our farm in the South of England. Initially, many were alarmed by this policy but my father welcomed them as human beings…

Not long ago when our actions and words no longer aligned with our public image, the lack of integrity put us at significant risk of being shamed, even ostracized, for moral failure and hypocrisy. Politicians caught with their hands in the cookie jar resigned, employees who cut corners were fired and cheating students expelled.

Today standards are shifting rapidly as we increasingly find ourselves in what I describe as a "post-shame" world. In other words, anything goes in the race to stay ahead and, like doping in sports, its prevalence spreads until it is the way things are. College students, corporate executives, political party members feel the immense pressure to fit in and compromise principles. They become thoroughly disingenuous, even corrupt, as theIr lines between right and wrong increasingly blur.

"Your call is important to us; someone will be with you shortly…" Recently, in need of help, I waited on the phone to talk to a real person. I had time to think of declining integrity, unashamedly evident in the message I heard and the truth of the situation. The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective "integer"meaning whole, complete, undivided and unbroken. Applied to people and institutions, it refers to the idea of conducting ourselves and our affairs according to our professed values and principles. Obviously, if my call mattered, someone would answer it.

The consequence of declining integrity is immense. Without integrity, nothing can be sustained. I recently purchased a laptop from a well-known electronics chain store and not only was I cynically misled its capability, I had to fight to get a full refund. So far gone was the situation that the employees on the sales floor didn't even pretend to help. A business model that puts short-term profit over customer service can't survive as this discount store and its few customers illustrate.

The integrity deficit is rising not only in our corporations, businesses, politics, and religious institutions but on a personal level; we see how people increasingly leverage one another's trust. The ripple effects can be devasting. A single lie put my innocent, severely disabled friend in a maximum-security prison for nine years without access to the medical care he desperately needed.

There are many reasons for this declining integrity. The most fundamental is the threat of others taking what we need to survive. Fear and greed have always existed; now there is no pretense from institutions or individuals, an increasing disregard for ethical behavior and principles and tipping our planet into the danger zone.

Concepts of service, honor and sacrifice, upon which most of us agree, have been mocked by some as losing to glorify winning. We witnessed these political attacks on the late Senator John McCain. The internet contributes by creating personal distance; there is no consequence or accountability to one another.

In this atmosphere, it's all too easy to succumb to cynicism and apathy. I finding myself amazed if somebody does what they say they'll do, not a feeling to which we should ever become accustomed. It's a vicious circle that will only take us down.

We all face tough challenges around integrity. Who are we in private? How do we behave when the boss is out? Would we lie under oath to save our skin? If we found a stash of cash, would we return it? So here's a reminder of the power of integrity to improve life for us and for our world. It's the ego that undermines integrity.

Contrary to that egoic voice in our heads, we are not the epicenter of the world. We are all connected, and every thing we do impacts others either positively or negatively. Don't let your ego run the show. This brings me back to my father during the war.

When the German POWs arrived to work on our farm, it was an unpopular move and they were treated with great suspicion. My father had every reason to be resentful. He signed up for the army but was declined because his expertise was needed in the ongoing challenge of feeding the British. A man of integrity, he chose to see these men as humans and assess them not by nationality but by the content of their character.

Many of these decent, hardworking men had been drafted into a war effort which they neither wanted nor in which they believed. Years following the war, as I was growing up, we would have visits from some of these men and their families who remained friends. In this small corner of England, integrity won the day for humanity and the greater good. This story has influenced my entire life. Behaving with integrity is a choice and makes such a difference.