Integrity is the Best Policy and What We Need Today

Hands piled on each other in agreement
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No one, accounting professionals included, lives a life of absolute integrity. Rather, it is an ideal for which to strive, including those who consistently display integrity can be overwhelmed by what is left over — what wasn't acted upon and what wasn't met with integrity.

Case in point: In the operating room of a great hospital a young nurse had her first day of confronting responsibility at work.

"You've removed eleven sponges, doctor," she said to the surgeon. "We used twelve."

"I've removed them all," the doctor declared. "We'll close the incision now."

"No," the nurse objected. "We used twelve."

"I'll take the responsibility," the surgeon said grimly. "Suture!"

"You can't do that!" blazed the nurse. "Think of the patient!"

The doctor smiled, lifted his foot, and showed the nurse the twelfth sponge.

"You'll do," he said.

The doctor had been testing her for integrity — and she had it.

This story, related more than 60 years ago by noted editor and author Arthur Gordon, illustrates a key component of integrity: having the courage of your convictions — sticking to your guns, doing what you believe is right, and not fearing to speak out.

Such actions are needed in the world today, at a time when looking good, showing up well, and garnering favorable press predominate. At the root of our existence is the need for the re-emergence of integrity as a common element in the collective character of humankind.

An Ideal to Strive For

Integrity is difficult to define. Eleven dictionaries carry eleven different definitions. We know integrity when we see it, but we have trouble explaining it.

There is an illusive nature to integrity. It cannot be self-proclaimed, only observed in others. Yet most acts of integrity are performed in private and not subject to public review.

Those who have integrity in large measure have discovered something that the rest of the world must know — that integrity, which many look upon as being comprised of sacrifice, struggle and non-advantageous decision making, actually makes life easier, joyful and powerful.

The Truth Prevails

British historian Arnold Toynbee observed that of 21 notable civilizations, 19 perished "not from external conquest but from the evaporation of belief within."

In his address years ago to the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, Charles H. Brower remarked that "today our country still has a choice. I believe it has always begun to make that choice. I believe it is going back to its old beliefs — such things as ideas, pride, patriotism, loyalty, devotion and even hard work."

Although those words were spoken decades ago, their ring of truth is now being heard.

Curiously, we discount acts of integrity practiced by others, not believing that they can have done what they've done simply because they thought it to be right.

Paradoxically, we're quick to condemn others who vividly display a lack of integrity, all the while overlooking or forgetting our own lapses.

A Pivotal Concept

Integrity might be the pivotal concept of what it means to be human. It certainly involves fully accepting one's humanity.

Integrity has many synonyms. However, no single synonym is sufficient: trustworthiness, loyalty, virtue, sincerity, candor, uprightness, honesty.

Integrity is also the avoidance of deception and the avoidance of expediency. It is being complete and undivided.

Integrity is an achievement, not a gift. It is not the characteristic that determines decisions. It is the summation of the decisions we've made.

In accounting, numerous opportunities to stray loom every day — whether it be to shift a single number or to create a fancy footnote.

Integrity communicates to others immediately. It is being the same person to everyone.

It's not noble. It's not altruistic. It is a practical vehicle for living effectively, for having life work.

It is maintaining values steadfastly and focusing on what you believe is right.

All of us should be so fortunate.


About Jeff Davidson

Jeff Davidson

Jeff Davidson, a.k.a. “The Work-life Balance Expert”®, speaks to accounting firms and associations on increasing their work-life balance so they can be more productive and competitive, and still have a happy home life. He is the author of Breathing Space, Simpler Living, and Dial it Down, Live it Up. Visit


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Aug 27th 2017 10:19

This article is a wonderful discussion about integrity that begins with this wonderful very old story. Modern medicine is a different story. To truly understand the shift in medical integrity, principally in American medicine you might want to read an extraordinary book, ”Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes - But Some Do,” Matthew Syed (Author)
This book opens with a dramatic and powerful story of a plane crash, the circumstances that led up to it, a vivid description of the people who lived through it, and the productive and perfection driven response of an entire industry to this event.
The second story in this book is of a great and needless tragedy, the death of a young mother having a routine surgical process become suddenly devastatingly wrong and ultimately fatal. In this case, had the husband not complained, shouted, and threatened, there would’ve been no investigation of how the mistakes of truly smart people accumulated to cause this woman’s death.
The author suggests that if medical malpractice and mistakes were classified as a disease, they would be ranked the third leading cause of death in America.
The book uses other examples but essentially illustrates that there does exist professions, industries and individuals who are committed, almost joyfully at immediate investigation of accidents and mistakes and the prompt dissemination of Detective, preventive, deterrence, and remedial action information.
Integrity enthusiastically in action.
Late in World War II the B-17 bomber was introduced but suffered from seemingly unpreventable crashes on landings and takeoffs. Some of the brightest minds of the day including mathematicians were tasked with trying to understand how these events could continue to occur to an airplane that had won every aviation design, performance, endurance, reliability and operability award.
Without much success, the investigation continued until a lowly flight engineer happened to mention that he found operating the plane was challenging because the award-winning dashboard design was symmetrical for the pilot and copilot, mirror images of each other. The engineer, who flew on many test flights and some combat missions, noted that pilots and copilots often were confused on takeoffs and landings because the handles operating the flaps on the right side of the center control column was identical in appearance to the handle that operated the landing gear on the left side of the center control column.
The engineer mentioned that several times on stressful takeoffs and especially stressful landings pilots and copilots had to correct their choice of handle. Might make sense he suggested to make the handles look different to prevent the confusion. This comment was immediately transmitted to all commands flying B-17s. The planes were grounded until the handle issue was resolved. There were literally no more crashes attributable to the landing gear/flaps operation.
American medicine is still run by physicians who also have the power of God.
Most medical accidents and mistakes rarely are investigated unless there’s a lawsuit.
The punchline of the story is that the excuse given by the surgeon to the family of the woman who died attributed her death to a completely unpredictable, one-off situation that would probably never occur again,” we are so very sorry for your loss.” In this case the story of what actually happened is terrifyingly stupid and arrogant, as, ironically, was the crash in the very first story in the book. The difference in response to these mutually fatal circumstances is a book of extraordinary lessons in the presence or absence of integrity, honesty, candor, openness and the difference between cultures of true perfection without blame for mistakes or carelessness with a commitment to immediate correction and aggressive communication to prevent further similar circumstances, and the culture where accidents are assumed to have lives of their own, are “one-offs” and somebody other than the person in charge is likely responsible, if anybody.
My definition of integrity is a little different from the author of this article, it is,” the tendency to do the right thing at the first possible opportunity.”
I hope this article, and this book can trigger a far deeper dive into the meaning and importance of integrity.

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