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Origins, Alignment, and Integrity

A few months ago I had the privilege of listening to Marine Colonel(ret) Art Athens give a presentation on the topic of integrity. During his presentation he described integrity as "The alignment of what we say and what we do". In my profession the word integrity is trained on, analyzed, and a staple of expectation for character. Art's definition really vibed with me. So I took it on and tweaked it. When I describe integrity to my students it is "The alignment of our beliefs, actions, and words". The addition of beliefs is important because, if our words and actions are aligned but not our beliefs, we are not true with ourselves and therefore can result in disharmony internally. We also will not be able to sustain the unity of our actions and words if there is discord with our beliefs. Eventually we will see deviation from our actions and words.

His presentation reminded me of a story I heard about the word integrity. It's where the word came from. Integrity finds its roots in the word integritas.

During the time of the Roman Empire, the Roman Legions would make formation and receive inspection on the proper wear of their armor. In formation, the inspecting centurion would pound his right fist against the legionnaires breast plate. If the armor was properly snug and strapped a distinct clang could be heard. Upon hearing this clang, the legionnaire would announce integritas. This meant that the armor was whole and sound.

Over time a rift developed in the legions. During the time of the 12 Caesars politically correct legionnaires were pulled from the legion to become part of the praetorian guard. The praetorians would hold similar inspections, but this time would announce "Hail Caesar". This signified that their allegiance was to a single man and NOT to the institution of the legion, the code of conduct, or loyalty to one another that symbolized the legion. Many of the legions felt that the praetorian elite acted with arrogance and a rift of rivalry and distrust grew.

In order to differentiate themselves further from the praetorian guard the legions adopted a new practice to their inspections. They changed the word announced from integritas to integer. To them integer symbolized a whole soldier. This adopted change announced that the armor, soldier, and soul were one in unity. (In our common understanding of integer, it is known as a whole number in math.)

Around the 4th century the social decline of the Roman Empire had firmly impacted the legions. The legions no longer mustered for their formal inspections. In fact, they got permission to no longer require wearing the armor. It was hot and heavy. During the summer wearing the armor was extremely taxing. Valuing comfort, the uniform items were not required to be worn. It started slowly. First the breast plate, then the greaves. Eventually the helm was no longer required. The impact on warfighting was drastic. Unpracticed, the legionnaires were not accustomed to wearing the weight of the armor. So, they chose to not do battle with it. The legions had critically reduced their warfighting capability and thus were easier to conquer in battle. The rest is history.

The alignment between our beliefs, actions, and words is very similar to the announcement of Integer. All as one we are whole and in unity. I think this is what we should strive for. There is a problem here though. I think for many of us we know when we see or hear something that doesn't align with our values. It doesn't feel right so we don't agree with it. Unfortunately, we have a hard time succinctly describing our values. How can there be alignment if our values are still not clear to us? Without this awareness we truly cannot be people of integrity.

We each make small compromises in our day to integrity. Are you a person that breaks the law consistently? I hope you are saying no. How often do you speed to get to work? For some, quite regularly. But with even that, I could still describe a person as having integrity. Small and innocuous they may seem over time compromises to our integrity can lead to very large deviations which can then lead to systemic/ organizational level issues. An example of this is the Wells Fargo multi-billion dollar scandal where between 2002 and 2016 hundreds of thousands of fraudulent bank accounts and lines of credit were opened unknowingly in their clients name.

This story has also given me a critical eye to change. Change is good. Simplifying is good. The complete removal of adversity to be replaced with comfort and ease is bad. We each have armor we need to wear. When things are very good and free of adversity, our internal armor is weak. We are more prone to compromise to maintain our comfy status quo. It is easier to compromise our alignment. We may even forget why the armor ever existed to begin with...until we need it. If you are aware of your values, then you know, that the non-institutional values you fervently believe in were likely earned and learned the hard way. Through pain. Those values are designed to prevent pain on you or others. If we ourselves do not have values and integrity, then we create pain.


Hard times create strong people,

Strong people create good times,

Good times create weak people,

Weak people create hard times.

So where do you choose to be in this cycle? If you choose to be Strong, I recommend:

  1. Learning to articulate and reflect on your values. There are many online tools to help. Not knowing your values means you cannot truly be a person of integrity.

  2. Choose alignment. It's a choice. Choosing to make alignment between your beliefs, actions, and words is done every day. Work at it. Choose alignment each day.

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