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The dictionary definition of integrity is “The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” In my opinion, definitions were never good for anything except writing essays. Ultimately, we have to integrate these definitions into our lives before they become useful. Personally, I would take the definition of integrity one step further: it’s the quality of being honest when no one’s looking and having strong moral principles when you’re the only one holding yourself accountable. What does it mean to be held accountable? Webster’s Dictionary defines “accountable” as “subject to having to report, explain or justify; being answerable or responsible.” When I hear “subject to” I think it implies little choice in the matter. I believe accountability is viewed as a consequence for poor performance and that it is a principle you should fear because it can only end up hurting you.
After all, when things are sailing along smoothly, people rarely ask “who is accountable for this success?” when you assume full responsibility and accountability for your thoughts, actions, feelings, and results you can almost direct your own destiny. Otherwise someone or something else will. To me, the real value of accountability or integrity comes from the ability to influence outcomes before they even happen. If we are more accountable for our actions and thought about the consequences we could receive, we all most definitely would have done something to change a mistake while also always trying to influence our fellow shipmates to do the same. I think in the military you are in a culture where accountability, admitting our mistakes and especially learning from them is absolutely critical to us in life and in the Navy. It does not mean you are nearing perfection as a human being, but rather that you can be trusted with words and deeds. Doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do? Of course. If you are described by others as a person of integrity, would it also follow that you have high character? Yes, absolutely. It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be. Building a reputation of integrity takes years, but it takes only a second to lose, so never allow yourself to ever do anything that would damage your integrity. We live in a world where integrity isn’t talked about nearly enough. We live in a world where “the end justifies the means” has become an acceptable school of thought for far too many. Now think of groups of people who are presumed to have integrity. Judges, doctors, military officers, and presidents come to mind. True, we can point to examples in each of the preceding groups of dishonest, immoral, and perhaps even criminal behavior. As with any group—business, politics, sports, education, journalism, etc.—we don’t need to search far and wide to discover similar failings. Indeed, it is our human nature to err.
I’ve had many successes and shortcomings with integrity in my life. I’ve also been very blessed to have had many great mentors in my life and see incredible displays of integrity; all of them examples I strive to live up to.
One of the biggest examples of integrity to me, happens to be one of the greatest wide receivers of all time. On January 23rd, 1989, The San Francisco 49ers has just won Super Bowl XXIII the previous day. Steve Young, the backup quarterback shadowing the great Joe Montana at the time, reports to the team facilities to take care of some end of post-season business. The place is a ghost town, apart from a few in the front office. Most of the team is either spending time with their families, relaxing, recovering from their night of partying, or a combination of the aforementioned. Young looks out to the team’s practice field. He sees Jerry Rice, the infamous number 80. The kid from Crawford, Mississippi who went from catching and laying bricks, working masonry with his father, to catching touchdown passes on the biggest sports stage in the world. Here he is now; the day after winning the Super Bowl out on the practice field again, running routes and perfecting his craft. Rice was honest with himself; he was honest with the fact that his incredible abilities as an athlete came from holding himself accountable, at all times, for his performance. He put in the work to be great. In addition, Rice wasn’t out there practicing because he believed he was going to receive some sort of adulation, additional compensation or congratulations for being out there, grinding after an incredible victory. He was out there because that’s who he was, regardless of who was watching or holding him accountable; he held himself accountable. This small anecdotal story is an example of the sort of integrity that I strive to emulate..
Integrity stems from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and compete. So integrity requires an inner sense of wholeness and consistency of character. When you are in integrity, people should be able to visibly see it through your actions, words, decisions, methods, and outcomes. When you’re “whole” and consistent, there is only one you. You bring the same “you” wherever you are, regardless of the circumstance. You don’t leave parts of yourself behind. You don’t have a ‘work you,’ a ‘family you,’ and a ‘social you.’ Sometimes, we don’t give ourselves permission to be our true selves out of fear of what other people think or due to an inability to truly ‘integrate’ the various parts of ourselves into on, complete whole person.
Michelle Obama said that over the course of our lives, “we learn [a lot] about honesty and integrity […] that [we] don’t take shortcuts or play by [our] own set of rules”. Unfortunately, I have tried to take shortcuts at times in my life. And every once in a while, I’ve even tried to play by my own set of rules. August of this year, I took a shortcut. I took the easy way, the path of least resistance. I couldn’t be bothered to conduct a full, inspection-ready clean on an M240B so instead, I did a basic field clean to ensure that the weapon would be properly functioning when I needed it next; whenever the call went up for our next convoy operation. I set my standard for myself too low; integrity was lacking. This definitely goes on the scoreboard as one of my failures.
I’m only human and mistakes and failures are inevitable; there’s certainly the potential to reduce them, but they’ll always be there as long as I’m being honest and some form of self-reflection and introspection exists. I’m working towards turning my failures and my shortcomings into my future success. Failures are always rich with material that we can learn from. Failures aren’t a dead end; they’re a speed bump. What allows me to grow is how I approach and move on from my failures. While I don’t allow failures to remain in my blind spot, uninvestigated, I also don’t dwell on them unnecessarily and allow them to shake my confidence or destroy my motivation for future endeavors. There are two lessons that currently come to mind from my most recent failure with integrity. The first is that I need to always hold myself to a higher standard. I should always go above and beyond both what others expect of me and what I know to be the bare minimum needed to accomplish a given task. Every day we are afforded the opportunity to make decisions for ourselves. These decisions will dictate the directions of our lives and determine whether our lives will be something meaningful or a complete waste of time. Approaching tasks and challenges in life with the bare minimum in mind is not likely to lead to a meaningful or purposeful life. The second lesson that I’ve learned is that if, over the course of my career, I ever receive orders that are not perfectly clear to me I need to seek clarification. And if clarification is not available, I need to go absolutely above and beyond what the standard is that has been set out.
While I work to minimize the failures and shortcomings in my life and look forward to celebrating the victories, I know that as long as I’m human mistakes are bound to happen. I only hope that I can continue to learn from my mistakes; while they hold me back, temporarily, and create more work for me, I know that they are full of lessons that will serve me for the remainder for my career and life. I wholeheartedly agree with General George S. Patton when he said, “I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom”.
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