By Jay J. Chaudhuri
Within the last year, a member of Congress has pled guilty for accepting over two million dollars in bribes, and a high-profile lobbyist has pled guilty for defrauding Native American tribes and corruption of public officials.
In Raleigh, a former state legislator has pled guilty to accepting campaign contributions in exchange for switching parties, leading one newspaper columnist to observe that “integrity in state politics is as rare as finding a single man in his 30s with good credit and no children.”
For many leadership experts, integrity has become the lodestar among all virtues.
President Dwight Eisenhower said, “The supreme quality for a leader is unquestionably integrity.”
From integrity, all other aspects of good character flow. So, what does integrity mean?
Law Professor Stephen Carter of Yale University and author of Integrity offers the best definition.
Integrity, he writes, requires three steps: “discerning what is right and what is wrong,” “acting on what you have discerned, even at a personal cost,” and “saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.”
The first element obliges us to engage in moral reflection.
The second part requires that we behave in a steadfast manner, including keeping our commitment.
The last aspect holds that we are not ashamed of our position, our steadfastness, our commitment.
How do we strive for integrity?
I want to focus only on discernment.
Too often, in public service, we do not devote the time to reflect precisely because we serve the public.
An unforeseen crisis turns priorities upside down; new legislation requires immediate monitoring and response; and the public demands a quick and effective response to new problems.
Amidst this stress on our time, it becomes important to retreat and reflect.
For presidents, there has been the tradition to escape Washington.
“I loved the White House,” Bill Clinton told the author Kenneth Walsh. “But even so, once in a while you just need to physically get out of Washington and get back into America and kind of clear your head…”
For public servants, then, it becomes important to retreat and clear our heads.
Although most of us do not have a presidential-like retreat, we can create our own by simply taking a day off and spending it in a quiet location, which allows us to think clearly and discern what is right from wrong.
While it is difficult, if we refuse to make time for personal discernment, we cannot aspire to live an integral life.
Jay J. Chaudhuri is special counsel to North Carolina’s attorney general and was a William C. Friday Fellow in 2001-03.