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January -June 2018

Reconsidering integrity and vulnerability as leadership selection criteria

  • Jantes Prinsloo
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Features, Leadership
18 minutes to read

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Article written by USB MBA alumnus Jantes Prinsloo

Say you need to appoint a leader in your organisation. What are the things you would typically look for in today’s turbulent environment? Capability, character, charisma? Hiring a competent person with questionable character can be more damaging than hiring a less competent person with moral character.

Leaders are often selected based on their charisma, personality or technical competence. However, neither the seduction of charisma, presence of a strong personality or the reassurance of technical excellence will guarantee the morality of a leader; therefore, moral character might be a key selection criterion for leaders. One would think that integrity is an obvious measure, but it is evident from the various leadership failures across organisations and in the political arena that virtuousness, or the presence of moral character, is not necessarily used as a key selection criterion for leaders.

Character is acknowledged as an essential leadership attribute. The character of leaders is something which is often taken for granted, with society expecting good leaders to be strong in character and to have a moral imperative to their actions. The character of a leader consists of core traits or virtues – such as integrity, trust, truth and human dignity – which influence the leader’s vision, ethics and behaviour. An obvious illustration of a leader who was a blend of experience, stewardship and character is Nelson Mandela. His view of leadership was based on the African concept of Ubuntu – the deep sense that we are human only through the humanity of others.

Various researchers have since shown that a deep consideration of others or living for others indicates the presence of moral leadership. Leadership, like stewardship, means service over self-interest. It can then be argued that leaders who do what they do for something larger than themselves have an awareness of their moral responsibility.

The notion that integrity is essential for effective leadership is widely held in leadership research. Some researchers say integrity is about the consistency of the leader’s words and actions. However, integrity without complementing character virtues can produce leaders who are inflexible and stubborn, with an inability to receive feedback and input from others. So, integrity alone is not enough.

Integrity and vulnerability have been measured in various forms and in terms of other character virtues. Researchers such as McKenna and Campbell (2011) positioned integrity and vulnerability as opposite but possibly complementary character traits in their character model which emphasises character awareness as a potential indicator of good or moral leaders. However, no literature could be found where these two character traits are explicitly measured as a pair of adjunctive constructs.

It is against this background that the combination of integrity and vulnerability as a filter for good leadership has been investigated. The basic premise is that integrity as a function of leadership character should always be in healthy tension with vulnerability. Therefore, this study aimed to determine the influence of integrity and vulnerability – in isolation and in combination – on leadership selection at a corporate consulting firm.

Here, vulnerability does not mean sharing every emotion, concern and doubt with everyone you meet or being emotionally fragile. Rather, it is about being open to the ideas of others, accepting uncertain states and recognising your own limitations. Sharing vulnerability is an exercise of retrospection and self-awareness which requires individuals to objectively view their own behaviour. This definition of vulnerability – and especially in its position opposite but contributing to integrity – is similar to the constructs of self-awareness in authentic leadership theory, as well as the cardinal virtue of temperance, which requires self-knowledge in order to understand and accept one’s own shortcomings.

Hiring a competent person with questionable character can be more damaging than hiring a less competent person with moral character.

How was the study conducted?
The primary data of this study was gathered by means of an experiment, commonly associated with causal research designs. A factorial design experiment was used to assess leadership selection criteria by manipulating the two leadership virtues of integrity and vulnerability through fictitious leader profiles to assess their influence in leader selection. This generated four leader profiles:

  • Leader profile 000: low levels of integrity and vulnerability
  • Leader profile 001: low levels of integrity and high levels of vulnerability
  • Leader profile 010: high levels of integrity and low levels of vulnerability
  • Leader profile 011: high levels of integrity and high levels of vulnerability.

The respondents were each given one of four scenarios built around Jack, a pseudo mid-level manager in a global organisation undergoing various structural and operational changes. The four scenarios represented the four leadership profiles. The leader profiles included adjunctive or discreet definitions for integrity and vulnerability as the understanding of discreet virtues is more consistent than for substantive virtues. Substantive virtues tend to include various virtues. All the leader profiles presented technical capability and likeability (charisma) with vulnerability and integrity manipulated. The respondents then had to rate Jack’s integrity and vulnerability on a five-point Likert scale. Next, descriptive statistical analysis was used to obtain an understanding of the sample group’s demographics and their perceptions of the relevant importance of integrity and vulnerability in leaders.

More about integrity as critical character virtue
The notion that integrity is essential for moral and effective leadership is widely held in leadership research. Surprisingly though, leader integrity has received little attention in management and organisational psychology literature. It has only recently been developed as a construct for academic research.

Various leadership theories refer to a conceptual link between integrity and leadership. Transformational leadership, ethical leadership, spiritual leadership and authentic leadership all include integrity as an element of their respective theories, but these theories do not explain how integrity functions in terms of important consequences of leadership such as trust and job performance.

A number of researchers have compared the relevant importance of integrity with other leadership traits and found that integrity rated the highest. The term integrity also enjoys great popularity in company mission and values statements. In an examination of 80 exemplary ethics statements, integrity was the most frequently mentioned value.

Integrity and other character traits
How does one measure integrity? When individuals rate their leaders on scales of ethics or virtues, or on any other ‘good-bad/positive-negative’ dimension, there is a tendency to make a summary judgement of whether the leader is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. This overall judgement clouds the ability to make finer distinctions.

Integrity is seen as an adjunctive virtue (a virtue which is neither morally good nor morally bad in and of itself, but is necessary for achieving moral uprightness) that should coexist with other (adjunctive and substantive) virtues to contribute to the holistic evaluation of someone’s character. This view is supported by researchers such as McKenna and Campbell (2011) who highlighted the need to view character virtues as interdependent, interconnected and each as necessary but not satisfactory on its own. In their character model, they suggested awareness of one’s integrity and the willingness to be vulnerable with a focus on the decision-making process as a possible indicator of a moral leader.

Behavioural integrity on its own can produce rigid and stubborn leaders with an inability to receive criticism and feedback from others. Also, some researchers say there is nothing inherently ethical about vulnerability as some narcissistic leaders may use their vulnerability or charisma manipulatively to achieve individual rather than collective outcomes.

Some researchers suggested that leaders with moral character are relatively accurate in their self-awareness compared to self-focused leaders who tend to overrate their demonstration of moral habits relative to the ratings of their employees. Some scholars have argued that only virtuous persons could accurately judge the virtues of self and others. A lack of self-awareness can make self-focused leaders vulnerable to considerable self-deception, ultimately harming the performance of their businesses and, in some cases, endangering the firm’s survival. Based on this argument, it could be suggested that leaders who are self-focused instead of self-aware lack vulnerability as a key character trait.

It can therefore be argued that integrity, as a character trait, is required to unlock the value of vulnerability, and vice versa.

… neither the seduction of charisma, presence of a strong personality or the reassurance of technical excellence will guarantee the morality of a leader

What did the study find?

What this study further found is that vulnerability (in isolation) is not an attractive character virtue in terms of leadership selection, while simultaneously confirming that integrity (in isolation) is an attractive character virtue. However, the most significant contribution was the indication that the combination of integrity and vulnerability (instead of the virtues in isolation) is indeed more desirable in leadership selection and that it indicates the presence of moral character.

Neither one of these character virtues on its own necessarily has an ethical or moral imperative, but the presence of both integrity and vulnerability can help to identify effective and ethical leaders. Therefore, we need to reconsider how we go about selecting these leaders to improve our chances of being led by individuals with moral character.

 

The responses for the four leader profiles were averaged per question and the means of these questions are presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The four leader profiles in terms of integrity and vulnerability

The leader profile with high levels of integrity as well as vulnerability scored highest on all questions/statements, except on being self-focused. In contrast, this is the aspect (being self-focused) on which the profile with low integrity and low vulnerability scored the highest. It is also worth noting that this is the aspect (being self-focused) on which the two low vulnerability profiles scored the highest. The perceived absence of focus on the self explains much of the strength that vulnerability brings to the preferred leadership profiles. Question 6 inquired into the ‘likeability’ of the leaders in these scenarios. It is interesting that the profile with low integrity but high levels of vulnerability also rated high on ‘likeability’. Question 7 inquired into the ‘perceived presence of moral character’ of the leaders in these scenarios and here the two high-integrity profiles rated highest. The difference that vulnerability makes in terms of perceived self-awareness was clear from Question 10. Both profiles with high vulnerability (even with low integrity) scored considerably higher than the others in terms of perceived self-awareness. These findings strengthen the argument that vulnerability is required to unlock the value of integrity, and vice versa.

The leader profile with low levels of both integrity and vulnerability (000) is the least attractive. When comparing the two middle profiles, the leader profile with low levels of integrity in combination with high levels of vulnerability (001) is more attractive than the leader profile with high levels of integrity and low levels of vulnerability (010). In essence, this is what the study found:

  • Vulnerability on its own: This study found that vulnerability (in isolation) is not perceived as an attractive character virtue in leadership selection. Although vulnerability, as an attractive character virtue in leaders, is receiving much attention in the popular press, no academic research could be found that assessed whether vulnerability is indeed an attractive character virtue in terms of leadership selection. One can argue that followers interpret vulnerability (in isolation) as a weakness in leaders, especially in the absence of ‘strong’ character traits such as courage and integrity.
  • Integrity on its own: Integrity (in isolation) is perceived as an attractive character virtue in leadership selection, which is widely supported in leadership research. Based on the results of this study, it is agreed that integrity is an important and attractive character trait for leadership selection. However, it can also be argued that when integrity (in isolation) is used as a leadership selection criterion, it may result in leaders who are rigid, change-averse and not fit for a fast-changing environment.

The combination of integrity and vulnerability: This combination seemed more desirable than any of the virtues in isolation. Some researchers have argued that integrity may be a vital, but not adequate, component of good character. Integrity without complementary character virtues might produce leaders who are inflexible and stubborn, with an inability to receive feedback and input from others. On the other hand, vulnerability without complementary character virtues can produce leaders who are inconsistent, without principles and directionless. This study therefore evaluated the combination of vulnerability and integrity against each virtue in isolation and found that the combination is significantly more attractive. So, this study supports the argument that each of the virtues are vital, but inadequate on their own.

… vulnerability seems to be the driver in terms of leader attractiveness and integrity the driver in terms of the perceived presence of moral character

Conclusion

It is clear that the presence of vulnerability increases the leader’s attractiveness, but only when combined with integrity. It is evident that leader attractiveness is highest for the leader profile with high levels of both integrity and vulnerability, compared to the other leader profiles. When comparing the virtues in isolation, vulnerability seems to be the driver in terms of leader attractiveness and integrity the driver in terms of the perceived presence of moral character.

Based on this finding, it can be argued that leaders with both integrity and vulnerability tend to be curious, responsive and reflective in their thinking and open to possibilities and change. Hence, this study supports the arguments of various researchers that integrity in combination with vulnerability indicates the perceived presence of moral character.

Sharing vulnerability is an exercise of retrospection and self-awareness that requires individuals to turn an objective eye on their own behaviour. Therefore, a practical recommendation is for companies to invest in self-awareness training for their leaders, allowing these individuals to develop the character trait of vulnerability.

When we select leaders for the future, we need to reconsider the selection process of these leaders to improve our chances of being led by individuals with moral character. Based on the findings of this study, it is suggested that to be able to lead ethically and effectively, leaders should have an awareness of self and their character composition, especially regarding integrity and vulnerability.

  • Original MBA research assignment: Prinsloo, J. 2017. Reconsidering integrity and vulnerability as leadership selection criteria. Unpublished MBA research assignment. Bellville: University of Stellenbosch Business School. Study leader: Prof JJ de Klerk.
  • USB Top Achievers’ Awards 2018: Jantes Prinsloo received USB’s Top Achiever’s Award for the Best Research Assignment in any 2017 Master’s Degree.

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