Jim Dolan's article in Texas Lawyer: ‘Integrity: When Heroes Have Feet of Clay’

Jim Dolan's article in Texas Lawyer: ‘Integrity: When Heroes Have Feet of Clay’

Jim Dolan is a friend and advisor who happens to be a sought-after leadership coach and psychotherapist for successful professionals, including many lawyers.  He writes a regular column called "The Lawyers' Coach" for the TEXAS LAWYER, and he has a book coming out by year end. 

The subject matter of this week's column (October 25, 2010) on integrity hit a nerve with me, because I've had my own experience recently where I questioned the integrity and ethics of someone I believed was a good friend -- someone whom I thought had my back.  I couldn't be more disappointed about what's transpired.  So - integrity, or a lack of it, has been top of mind.

With full attribution to Jim and the TEXAS LAWYER, I reprint his column here. 

"Integrity is a quality on which public discourse has focused recently. Understanding the word's uses and misuses can help attorneys as they seek to navigate the sometimes tricky interpersonal relationships at their firms.

The word "integrity" is related to "integer," meaning oneness, or the quality of being unitary or whole. A person who demonstrates integrity, then, is someone whose speech and actions are of a whole with his intentions, thoughts and values. When understood in this way, the word carries no value attributions. In this light, people can understand even the villains of history as men of integrity.

But in contemporary usage, describing someone as a person of integrity has come to mean that she is good - a certain kind of good. This understanding neatly cleaves the world into good people with integrity and bad people without it. This worldview can pose problems for those confronted by the imperfect nature of those they admire.

I knew a young lawyer who was assigned a mentor within the firm. The mentor had a reputation as a man of integrity and often spoke about the topic. The young lawyer was enamored of his mentor and felt fortunate to be connected with someone of his caliber - a married church deacon trusted by some of the wealthiest and most powerful clients the firm possessed.

The reader may guess what came next, based on the qualities listed. One scandal after another has featured people of authority, power and public trust taking an ethical tumble. The young lawyer overheard a conversation where the mentor and his legal secretary were making plans to meet at a downtown hotel. At subsequent mentoring meetings, the now-disillusioned young lawyer listened while the mentor discussed his long marriage, his admiration for his wife and what it takes to sustain passion. All the young lawyer could think about was the conversation he had overheard.

He asked me what he should do about the situation. "I feel so betrayed. I never knew he was such a phony," the young lawyer said.

That kind of labeling often is not helpful in constructively addressing a situation. "He's not a phony. He's just an ordinary human being who feels the need to appear one way so he can act another. There's nothing for you to do about anything, except learn," I advised.

This did not sit well with the young lawyer: "Learn what? That to get ahead you must be a phony and pretend to be something you're not?"

He ran a real risk of getting caught in bitterness and cynicism, instead of developing the kind of insight into human behavior that can serve lawyers well. I proposed, "How about learning that when people are going on about this or that high-minded value, they often are playing a shell game with others. In essence, they are saying, 'Look at what I want you to look at, not at who I am.' "

What's the takeaway from the disillusioned associate's tough lesson on the gap between words and actions? I think it's something like what I read in the "Tao Te Ching" of Lao Tze. Among Lao Tze's many assertions is: The truly good man is not aware of his goodness; it is simply what he does. And the truly evil person thinks that what he does is good. After all, most real-life villains see themselves acting in service of a greater good.

It may be that true integrity, in a values sense, is closer to what the Tao called emptiness. That is, the person of true integrity does not preach about it but only acts impeccably. He is not eager to let others know about his own goodness but perhaps is more interested in discovering the good in others.

The young lawyer should seek a mentor who possesses this emptiness and who even seems unremarkable. Those who mentor should move into a position of stillness from which they can endeavor to understand their protégés, rather than lecturing about their own supposed strengths.

When any of us discover that a respected person has feet of clay, it is not up to us to do anything about it, except have compassion. If our own shortcomings were revealed, that might be our most fervent hope."

James Dolan, M.A., is a professional coach and psychotherapist with 30 years of experience in private practice in the Dallas area. He works with lawyers and physicians to improve business development communications, internal relations, leadership and client-patient retention. His e-mail address is dolan.james@sbcglobal.net.