By Dr. Gary Welton
When I finished my graduate study and moved out of Buffalo, New York, to take my first full-time professional job at the University of Missouri, I called my telephone company to discontinue my landline service. After being put on hold while the agent checked my account, I was shocked by the words I heard: “We are very sorry to lose your business. You have been a very good customer.”
In fact, all I had done was to pay my bills on time. There is nothing especially noble about meeting one’s basic financial obligations. Isn’t that just the expected normal course of action? Apparently, the bar for integrity is set very low. If you simply perform your basic obligations then you are a person of integrity.
I value the reputation I have continued to develop since my departure from Buffalo. The only time I was late with a payment happened following the birth of our first son. It was my fault. It wasn’t justifiable, though one can easily understand how it happened.
I appreciate the trust that my church has placed upon me as I have served as the church treasurer for about 15 years. During that time I wrote several checks for amounts in excess of $100,000 when we were constructing our new church building. While I have the trust of my church family, I have also built careful accountability structures into our processes, so that any impropriety would be quickly spotted by my assistants. To quote Ronald Reagan’s use of the Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.”
The characteristic of integrity was once considered a requirement for leadership. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
What has happened? In 2016, I was faced with a voting choice between two major candidates. I was not convinced of the integrity of either person. The ongoing legal squabbles on both fronts continue to give me cause for concern.
My very first lesson about the role of being a church treasurer came from my dad, who also volunteered in that office for many years. I remember well when he told me, “The first penny you steal from the church will be the most expensive penny you ever hold.” I suppose it is because of that lesson that I obsess over the pennies as well as the dollars. When I present the annual oral report every winter, I rest confident that the numbers add up correctly, that not even one cent is missing.
I used that same exacting standard when I handled my mother’s accounts and was honored by the faith and confidence of my siblings. When I reported the state of her finances at the time of her death, they thanked me for my integrity.
I cannot effect much change on the lack of integrity in Washington, but I can practice moral and ethical decisions as I live my life on a daily basis. Granted, I’ve made my share of mistakes in life, and maintain my status only by the grace and mercy of God. May I continue to be a positive role model in my family, my church, my workplace, and my community, because integrity does matter. It is the supreme quality for leadership.
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.