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Integrity and Leadership

Some years ago the public relations officer of a large corporation summarized for me his guiding principle: “Find out what the people want and do more of it; find out what they don’t want and do less of it.”
While seldom so succinctly stated, such an external, “other directed” guide to behavior is finding ever wider acceptance in American life. Implicit in its acceptance is a flight from personal integrity; and here may be found an important explanation for some of the mischief presently besetting our society.
Doubtless, this is good enough as a formula for getting rich. However, if an individual looks upon wealth as a means to such higher ends as his own intellectual and spiritual emergence or realizing those creative potentialities inherent in his nature, then the formula has its shortcomings: in certain areas, it is downright destructive.
This is a serious charge. Let’s explore it. In order to get this matter into perspective, contemplate the countless specialized subjects known to mankind. Take any one of them — landscape painting, for instance — and arrange the population according to proficiency or quality. There would be some one person at the very peak. Under him would be a few competent landscape painters; there would follow perhaps one million having a discriminating appreciation of such art; after which there would be the great mass — millions upon millions, unconscious, unaware, utterly ignorant of the art or the standards by which its perfection could be attained or judged.
Rearrange the population in proficiency pyramids for all of the countless subjects that engage human interest and each of us would find himself near the base of most of the pyramids. Few are leaders or among the highly competent — except rarely and momentarily, if at all. Each of us has a potential for growth and development — especially if advantage is taken of the help available from those on higher levels.
With this in mind, let us explore the implications of integrity to the situation we are contemplating. It involves the accurate reflection in word and deed of that which one’s highest insight and conscience dictate as true and right. Now a person’s concept of what is true may not in fact be truth, but it is as close to truth as he can get. It is the individual’s closest approximation to truth, his most faithful approximation, the most accurate reflection of his best lights.
With the pyramid picture and this conception of integrity in mind, let us now observe what happens when the skilled in any subject — the competent who are near the peak — adopt the practice of finding out what the people want in order to “do more of it” and finding out what they do not want in order to “do less of it.” In such circumstances, from whence comes the instruction for which each of the skilled is to do? From the best that is in each skilled person or available to him? From the highest conscience of each? Indeed not! The instruction and leadership in such circumstances is tailored to the level of the “know nothings” of the given subject, to the values at the base of our imagined pyramid where over 90 percent of the people are. Integrity is forsaken. Potential leadership is diverted from higher aspiration and, instead, panders to the tastes and foibles of the ignorant ones….
When an individual, in his thinking and actions, unhitches himself from integrity, he “lets himself go,” so to speak. He is anchored to nothing more stable than whimsy, momentary impulses, mere whiffs of fickle opinions. He is adrift and without compass. This shows through in much current art, music, poetry, and unquestionably accounts, in a very large measure, for the rapidly growing socialism, collectivism, decadence — call it what you will….
American economic progress has been truly phenomenal. But this progress has been founded on inspiration from the highest insights of individuals, not on advice from the lower levels of ignorance. In this manner the masses progressively are freed from poverty and slavery, free men’s material needs gratified as never before, and opportunities opened to everyone to pursue and develop those creative potentialities inherent in his own personality. If we would succeed with our political institutions, we have in the productive process a model to emulate. However, we must understand how this process really works: it finds its power in highest conscience and the accurate reflection thereof, in short, in integrity.
One’s highest conscience, regardless of the step it occupies on the Infinite Stairway of Righteousness and Wisdom, is sensitive to the way one treats it. Lie about it, distort it, reflect it inaccurately, take contrary instruction from inferior sources or yield to the temperature of fame or fortune or popularity or other weaknesses of the flesh at its expense and it will become flabby and flaccid and will be incapable of rising to higher levels.
Now and then we observe individuals who can be depended upon to state accurately that which they believe to be right, persons unmoved by fickle opinion, by the lure of applause, or by the sting of censure. We may disagree with such persons, but be it noted that we trust them. For their creed appears to be:
This above all, to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Such persons are possessed of integrity, an essential ingredient of libertarian leadership.

This is an excerpt from his book
Elements of Libertarian Leadership that was published in the August 2017 issue of Future of Freedom.

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    Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder and president of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), 30 S. Broadway, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.