What is Integrity and Why Should We Expect Integrity From Our Leaders?

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Of all the moral and ethical guideposts that have been established to judge our leadership none is more seminal than integrity. Leadership at this point in time in our country’s history has become paramount.

What can we look to in order to evaluate the leadership that is being exhibited to guide us in our current political, economic and social crises? I thought back to what I had been taught both as a Marine and in my ethics classes in law school and determined to start this series of articles on integrity.

Integrity struck me as a concept that had undeniable applicability to both the state of current events, as well as the practice of law.

Integrity stands for soundness of moral principle and character. It is a synonym for honesty and uprightness. It is a martial word that comes to us from an ancient Roman army tradition.

In the ancient world of the Roman soldier the officers would inspect their men, much like inspections that occur every day in the modern Army. To acknowledge his senior, the soldier would strike the armor breastplate that covered his heart with his right fist and shout “Integritas”. In Latin, the language of yore, it meant wholeness and completeness.

The armor had to be strongest there in order to protect the heart from sword thrusts and arrow strikes. The inspecting officer would listen to hear the affirmation from the soldier, as well as for the right tone that well kept armor would give off. This would assure the inspecting officer that the armor was sound and protected the soldier beneath it.

There came a point in time where the Praetorians, the Imperial bodyguards began to ascend to power and influence. One could make the argument that the Praetorians were the politically correct soldiers of the legions. They no longer had to shout “Integritas” to signify that their armor was sound. As a substitute they simply pledged their allegiance to their leader, Caesar. They and their armor were no longer pledged to the institution or a Code of Ideals; they were pledged to a single man.

As time passed and the gulf between the common soldiers and the politically correct Praetorians widened, the common soldiers thought of a way to distinguish themselves from the Praetorians and, at the same time, continue the old ideal traditions of integrity. They no longer used the word “Integritas” but substituted the word “integer”.

The change was meant to signify not only that the armor was sound but, in addition, to inform those who heard that the soldier was of sound character and integrity. The change in phraseology marked a real distinction between the politically correct Praetorians and the common soldiers who thought of themselves as being morally whole.

Integrity thus became a combination of two words that now refer to a completeness of character, much like the completeness of the armor that protected the heart of the ancient Roman soldier.

In a subsequent column, we will learn what happened to the greatest empire on the face of the earth when the Roman soldiers lost their integrity.

Words to live by: People of integrity love people and use things; they don’t use people and love things.

By Jim Messer, LTC USMC, Ret.