Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

Leadership as Integrity and Trust

Leadership is impossible without integrity, and integrity is inconceivable without trust. Erwin Schwella explores the interconnections between these concepts in his latest blog. He concludes, quite starkly that the flip side - leadership corruption - is deadly and kills.

by Erwin Schwella


Leadership is impossible without integrity, and integrity is inconceivable without trust.

A foundational point of departure for understanding and practicing leadership integrity is the oft-quoted idea that the integrity of people can be judged by how they treat those who can do nothing for them. This perspective provides insights into the relational power and influence dimensions of integrity.

Another frequently heard aphorism is that integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.

I contrast integrity with corruption and put forward that integrity is dignity while, in comparison, corruption is deadly.

Integrity founded on trust guides leadership to:

  • do unto others as those others want to be done unto by themselves,
  • do the right thing even when no one is watching,
  • treat others with dignity, and
  • deliver on trust in, of, and for leadership.

Integrity leadership based upon mutual trust positively impacts on the personal credibility, inter-relational and institutional legitimacy, and authoritative societal legality of compassionate and competent servant leadership.

Integrity is correctly and consistently perceived as and associated with ethics and morality in leadership. It also needs to be realized that integrity is significantly functionally and instrumentally valuable, over and above the fundamental moral value of integrity. This functionality can and should also be calculated and expressed in monetary value terms.

Integrity is dignity.

In contrast: Quite starkly, and directly, corruption is deadly and kills.

The absence of integrity, in moral and monetary terms, are disastrously and destructively expensive. Leadership without integrity destroys trust, legitimacy, and legality at exponential costs to all. Such lacks and lapses of integrity are inordinately expensive as they:

  • directly and indirectly increase transaction costs,
  • decrease efficiency,
  • and destroy effectiveness.

When thinking and action by leaders are isolated from the constructive impact of integrity, the brakes come on, impacting what Covey refers to as: “the speed of trust.”

The costs of the absence of integrity also discriminates with double jeopardy against the already poor and powerless, in favor of the rich and powerful. The rich and powerful corruptly get less of what would have been available with integrity, and the poor and powerless get even less of what little, if any is left.

The links between integrity and trust are amplified by leadership expert Gary Yukl. Yukl postulates that integrity in leadership requires trust in the honesty and consistency between the espoused values of leaders and leadership behavior. Leadership, with integrity, as consistency and honesty, is built upon trust and in turn builds trust through integrity.

Those who are required to trust leadership build their trust, to a significant extent, on the perception that they and their leaders share a value system, and that the leaders will consistently and with integrity adhere to these shared values in their thinking and actions. Integrity impacts positively on trust and trust requires reciprocal integrity.

Trust-based integrity leadership delivers personal, institutional, societal, and systemic purpose-driven and value-enhancing positive impacts

Trust-based integrity leadership delivers personal, institutional, societal, and systemic purpose-driven and value-enhancing positive impacts. These impacts have societal and systemic reach way beyond mere personal, professional, and organizational performance.

Where there is integrity and trust in leadership and by leadership this results in leadership impacts which are analogous to those described by The African Leadership Council’s Mombassa Declaration (Masire et al., 2004) . According to the Council, which was facilitated by Robert Rotberg:

“Good leaders globally guide governments of nation-states to perform effectively for their citizens. They deliver high security for the state and the person; a functioning rule of law; education; health; and a framework conducive to economic growth. They ensure effective arteries of commerce and enshrine personal and human freedoms. They empower civil society and protect the environmental commons. Crucially, good leaders also provide their citizens with a sense of belonging to a national enterprise of which everyone can be proud. They knit rather than unravel their nations and seek to be remembered for how they have bettered the real lives of the governed rather than the fortunes of the few.”

Where integrity and trust in leadership and by leadership is lacking, the results are analogous to those described by the council in the following way:

“Less benevolent, even malevolent, leaders deliver far less by way of performance. Under their stewardship, roads fall into disrepair, currencies depreciate and real prices inflate, health services weaken, life expectancies slump, people go hungry, schooling standards fall, civil society becomes more beleaguered, the quest for personal and national prosperity slows, crime rates accelerate, and overall security becomes more tenuous. Corruption grows. Funds flow out of the country into hidden bank accounts. Discrimination against minorities (and occasionally majorities) becomes prevalent. Civil wars begin.”

The benevolent effects of integrity and trust-based leadership, as ethical and moral leadership, as opposed to deficient integrity-based and trust-breaking leadership, as unethical and immoral leadership, also holds true for political, economic, and societal leadership.

The world currently faces many crises, of which the Covid-19 pandemic is but one. Indications are that there are many other looming crises linked to global political, economic, social, and ecological conditions. The nature of these crises, as well as their potential for socially innovative solutions

facilitated by integrity-based learning leadership can be perceived through the opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

These global crises, of which the Covid-19 crisis is evidence, and which is neither the last nor the only crisis that has to be dealt with by leaders globally, call for the reimagining of leadership. This reimagining of leadership must deal simultaneously with the challenges of the crises as well as reach out towards the envisioning and inspiring reimagining of leadership for socially innovative integrity-based learning leadership.

Failing to reimagine leadership as integrity and trust will result increasingly and globally in what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), in his book Leviathan (1651), describes as a: “War of all against all” (Bellum omnium contra omnes) where there is:

“…no place for industry,
because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently
no culture of the earth;
no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea;
no commodious building;
no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force;
no knowledge of the face of the earth;
no account of time;
no arts;
no letters;
no society;
and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and
the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Now is the season to reimagine leadership.

If integrity and trust-based leadership loses the season, Hobbesian apocalyptic outcomes result.

If integrity and trust-based leadership wins the season, the best of times may still emerge, bringing with it wisdom, belief, light, hope, and prospects, rather than going the other way.

It is a time to choose!

Reimagine leadership now, in terms of integrity and trust, and co-create the desired future through social innovation.

Or risk a scenario of co-created collapse where the few get less and less in the short-term through corruption, which is deadly — and kills!


Covey, S.M.R. (2006). The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. Free Press.

Masire, K., Gowon, Y., Awori, M., Anyang’ Nyong’o, P., Balala, N., Chikaonda, M., Khalif Galaydh, A., Geingob, H., Jonah, J., & Kinana, A. (2004). Leadership in Africa: The Mombassa Declaration. African Leadership Council, facilitated by Robert I. Rotberg, Belfer Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/african-leadership-council

Yukl, G. (2012). Leadership in Organizations, 8th Edition. Pearson.

Erwin Schwella

Erwin Schwella grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He obtained a PhD in Public Governance from Stellenbosch University and became an academic there in 1981. Realizing the real consequences of apartheid, he became an academic and activist critic.

During democratization in South Africa, he served to shape the future of democratic new South African governance institutions. He is an emeritus professor of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and in the Law School of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Since taking emeritus status from Stellenbosch, he learns about leadership as Dean: School of Social innovation and the Founding Servant Leader of the Centre for Good Governance in Africa at Hugenote Kollege in South Africa.

Erwin Schwella served as the Chair of the ILA Public Leadership Member Interest Group.

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