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Leading on the High Road: Building Integrity in an Age of Image

By John C. Maxwell | May 7, 2024
Leading on the High Road: Building Integrity in an Age of Image

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s actually one of my least favorite sayings. It’s a catchy but destructive idea that does more harm than good, and here’s why:

You can’t truly “make it” if you don’t have integrity.

And integrity is the opposite of fake. It literally means being whole and undivided – being the same on the inside as you are on the outside. If “fake it ‘til you make it” is a philosophy that you live by, then you’re setting yourself up for failure in the long run.

I understand why people have embraced this notion. We live in a culture that rewards image – often over integrity. We promote people who appear to have their act together, and encourage others to do the same. Never mind any warning signs about their character. As long as they look good while they produce, our culture is satisfied.

Why is that? Why do we reward image over integrity? The answer is simple:

Image is easy. Integrity is hard.

Now, don’t let the word hard scare you. After all, you undoubtedly know that everything worthwhile is uphill. You understand that it takes discipline and time to achieve things that are of lasting value. Integrity is the same. It’s the sum of all your decisions over time; when you choose each day to live according to the standards you set for yourself, you build integrity on the inside and in the minds of the people around you.

Integrity is essential for a leader, because people will not willingly follow someone they cannot trust. And trust is built when you consistently act according to your beliefs. When you have integrity, you have what management expert Peter Drucker called “the final requirement of effective leadership.”So how can you make sure you are building your integrity in a culture of image? Here are three questions you should ask yourself in order to maintain your integrity:


Integrity begins with authenticity. The only person in the world you can’t hide from is you. To be a genuine person, you have to be able to live with yourself and the decisions you make. If your actions would cause you shame or embarrassment if they were ever found out, then you’re not being true to yourself and your values. If you feel the need to hide your actions from others, the first person you’re deceiving is yourself.


Mentors are the people who have chosen to invest in you. They believe in you and your potential, and have shared their time and wisdom to help you maximize it. If your actions would disappoint them, then you’re not putting enough value on your mentor’s investment. You’re shortcutting the process, and hurting both yourself and your mentor.


You are surrounded by people who are affected by your actions. Whether it’s your family, friends, colleagues, or neighbors, your choices impact them on a daily basis. You can’t hide who you are from them. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not. You can’t try to trick people into believing you are a better person or leader than you really are. You must be yourself with them—being open about your flaws and shortcomings as well as your strengths.

I admit that can feel scary. Once when I was speaking to a group of C-suite leaders, encouraging them to be open with their teams about their weaknesses, an attendee spoke to me afterward and challenged my thinking. He said he believed a leader should never show weakness to employees. “You’re working under a misconception,” I explained. “You think your people don’t already know your weaknesses and flaws. The purpose of admitting them isn’t to give them new information. It’s to let them know that you know what they are.”


It’s easy to believe that integrity doesn’t really pay off. In fact, that seems to be the message our culture thrives on! Why do things the hard way when you can just “fake it ‘til you make it” – especially when so many people seem to succeed overnight through shortcuts and shams? It’s tempting to believe that you can or should do the same. After all, everyone wants to get to the top, so why not take the fastest route?

Here is the reality: the fastest way to the top won’t keep you there. People who shortchange their internal character inevitably fall. And when they do, it’s always a long drop back to the bottom – and a much steeper climb the second time around. If you want to get to the top and stay there, the key is integrity. Sure, it takes time, and it often feels like an unnoticed effort, but be patient. Integrity always pays off in the end.

I love this quote from Ann Landers: “People of integrity expect to be believed. They also know time is on their side and are willing to wait.” Your integrity is the foundation for lasting achievement. If you build it, success and significance will come. And you’ll be able to enjoy them for a long time.

Effective, authentic leaders don’t just produce – they bring people together in a world that divides.

Leadership is influence: nothing more, nothing less. As people of influence, leaders have a profound role – and because of it, an equally profound responsibility. But the state of leadership in today’s world has left people at odds and at their wit’s end. John Maxwell’s newest book, High Road Leadership, seeks to fill today’s leadership gap. Click here to discover 12 defining characteristics of leaders that get results and inspire others.

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