I had been at my job for nearly 10 years when I got the call from my boss. He wanted to know why Helen, one of my coworkers, would be under the impression that I'd used company money to purchase a plane ticket for personal use. As he explained Helen's accusation, I realized where her assumption had come from—I had to fly to Oregon for work, my ticket was on Alaska Airlines, and my brother lives in Alaska. So Helen saw the ticket in my inbox, noticed the Alaska part, and jumped to the conclusion that I was on my way to see my brother using the company dime.
As my boss and I talked through this misunderstanding, I felt myself growing more and more angry with Helen. It was bad enough that she'd gone to my boss without talking to me first. But what really got me was that she made a very serious accusation of immoral—and illegal—action on my part. By the time we hung up, I was livid.
It was a good thing I was working from home and not able to stomp over to Helen's office and tell her what I thought of her little report. Instead, I stomped around my house, furious that she would say such things about me, horrified that someone might believe her, and deeply hurt that my boss would even have to ask me to explain. My integrity was on the line, and I didn't like it one bit.
If you've ever been on the receiving end of a false rumor or a mean-spirited accusation, you know how awful it feels to have your character put into question. Because sometimes, that's all we have. I am a reasonably good leader in lots of ways, but I know that even when I fail as a leader, I am failing honestly. I know that, despite my professional weaknesses, I am a person of trustworthy character, a person others believe to be honest and moral. And that, perhaps more than anything else, has helped me do well in my work.
So when that part of my professional life was thrown into question, I freaked. What if my boss believed her and not me? What if she told other people and I became the subject of gossip and speculation? What if, in a matter of hours, she managed to ruin a reputation I spent 10 years building? I was so upset that I couldn't sleep—and I can always sleep.
Integrity doesn't often come up in conversations about women in leadership—have you ever head the phrase "A Woman of Integrity"? Me either. Maybe it's because we just assume women are honest and morally upright. Or maybe we assume men aren't. I don't know. But I do know that gender doesn't have anything to do with the importance of being trustworthy. It doesn't have anything to do with being someone others can count on to do what's right, no matter what the cost.
Perhaps we don't think about integrity in women because we don't think about integrity as women. And that's a problem. I have a friend who tells lots of little white lies. She does this with the best of intentions—she wants to spare people's feelings or protect them from a hurtful truth. But I don't trust her. I never know if she's saying nice things to me because she means them or because she wants me to feel good. I have worked with women who soften their criticisms of something I wrote so that I'll like them, even if it means the article isn't as good as it could be—and I've done the same to others.
In her wonderful book Gender and Grace, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwan explores an interesting way of thinking about the consequences of Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden. Part of Eve's punishment was that her desire would be for her husband. Van Leeuwan suggests that this is where our inherent, God-given need for relationships becomes twisted. Instead of living in harmony with those we care about, we will live in a state of wanting more, of needing more, than others can ever give. We will therefore push everything else—including our integrity—aside in the name of relationships.