There are two contradictory experiences that we all share in this moment: Utter uncertainty about a lot; and total predictability that yesterday, today, and tomorrow will be virtually identical. That is a strange mix –at once both numbingly monotonous and utterly chaotic. This creates an odd and conflicting reality. I am nearly certain about the quality of tomorrow because it will probably be a carbon copy of today. Ho Hum. But I cannot imagine the next quarter, next year, or beyond.
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We are always swimming in a sea of uncertainty –even during “normal” times. But, some key bits of regularity give us the illusion of predictability. Schools start in the fall. Airplanes are safe. The occasional cough is a tickle in the throat – not the plague. As business leaders, we base much of our planning on predictions about the market, the competition and consumer behavior. In general, we are confident about many of our expectations. It once seemed obvious that people who traveled last year would probably do it next year. That was one of the dependable constants. Not anymore.
Right now, anyone who claims confidence about when the pandemic will end or when flights will be full cannot possibly have any basis for that belief. Despite the sameness and tedium of day-to-day life, we are simultaneously facing stressful decisions about things that were not dilemmas in the “before times”. Should I go to my friend’s socially distant barbecue? Will it be safe to send the kids to school next month? Did my housemate socialize somewhere? These mundane activities have never felt so fraught with risk.
We can’t assume that anything we believe now will still be true in a month.
But we can craft an oasis of reliability within our own control. It will not come from outside circumstances, but from our own relationship to what we say and how we identify ourselves.
Each of us has the capacity to decide how we relate to our own words. When you say you will be somewhere or do something, are you nearly a sure bet? Or is counting on you a gamble?
Some of us stake our identities on doing what we say we will; not just those things we say as formal promises to others, but those things we say to ourselves. Living like that starts from a commitment to integrity; not integrity in the vernacular sense, the idea of morality, or being a good person. Instead, I mean structural integrity. This integrity is structural in the sense that a building has integrity if the walls are straight, the roof is sealed and the doors work. When the building’s integrity lapses because the roof has a leak, it’s clear what must happen to restore integrity: Fix the roof.
This kind of integrity, or lack of it, determines our way of being in life and has a direct influence on what the world can count on from us –and us from ourselves.
Embracing structural integrity conveys dependability. When someone with integrity says they will do something, be somewhere, or provide something, you can bet the house on it.
Have you ever made a new year resolution while simultaneously knowing you will probably blow it off in short order? Sometimes, we cannot even remember the resolution, no less act on it. That’s not unusual – it’s the ordinary fate of resolutions. There are those who try diet after diet after diet, never able to stick with one. Or people who join one gym after another, never making it past the first two weeks of visits. In fact, that likelihood is integral to the fitness business model. They sell you the membership banking on your never showing up.
Imagine being someone for whom everything you say is as solemn as a promise, not a hope. You gain stability, reliability, and a kind of confidence. Not bravado, but quiet assurance. Extend that image to encompass your family. What if not only you but your partner and children also operated within that paradigm. Would it change the quality of conversations, plans, or projects?
Finally, imagine your organization being one that cascades integrity throughout its operations. Every time someone says they will do something by Friday, they either do it, or, if it becomes impossible, they explain in advance, apologize, and provide a new, reliable time. What if that was the context for every conversation and collaboration in your organization?
The paradigm of integrity is the bulwark against chaos.
It doesn’t stop unpredictability, but it confines it to outside of your own way of being.
Sh*t still happens. But you confront it through the power of your word, rather than as its victim. This works only if you commit fully to it. Like any major shift, it takes practice. We have lots of innate bias that makes us terrible estimators of how long things take, so prepare to be doing a lot of fixing and re-promising at first.
Try an experiment. Live by your exact word for everything for a week. That includes the mundane, like buying ONLY what’s on your list, or doing things in the exact order they appear on your calendar. It seems silly, but it builds the muscle of living as you say you will live. You do it in that way ONLY because you said you would.
Eventually, the new way of being becomes easier, and speaking with intention and integrity inhabits you. You speak in commitments and act on what you say because you said so – because it is who you are. It will ultimately define you and give you the confidence to take on more and bigger things. When you feel like your own rate of integrity is quite high (it will never be 100%), start sharing and bringing others into the paradigm.
A commitment to integrity will give you a magical kind of empowerment that transcends even the chaos of a coronavirus pandemic.