Warren Buffett once wrote this little gem of a statement in one of his annual letters to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders years back: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."

Anyone's reputation, whole career, or success can quickly fall like a house of cards, no matter the hard effort made or accolades won over the years. Just ask Martin Winterkorn, the former chief executive of Volkswagen, who resigned following the embarrassing diesel emissions deception and cover-up, for which he admitted responsibility.

A non-negotiable trait that is hard to find nowadays

Without integrity running through a leader's veins as the source of his or her decision-making process, and without integrity as that individual's internal navigational system guiding him or her through life, failure is imminent.

In his book, Uncommon, Hall of Fame football coach Tony Dungy writes that integrity is the "choice between what's convenient, and what's right."

I can't tell you how applicable this is to the role of managers. Working in integrity means that you don't question your character when leading people, especially when the choice isn't easy.

Integrity means staying true to yourself and your values, even when you're faced with serious consequences for the right choices that you're making, like, perhaps, losing a job because you wouldn't tow the line and cut corners.

When you get to that place where integrity rules your life and leadership, you'll walk away from doing things that other people would think, "no big deal." But you know better because the short-term gains aren't worth the risk and could derail your career. That's the voice of integrity speaking to the inner chambers of your heart.

A person of integrity is faced with some hard questions: can I take one step back now to move two steps forward later? And am I willing to listen to the voices of wisdom by doing the best thing for my family

When arriving at the difficult crossroads of life and work, many of us have to make decisions that define who we are. For others, it's not so easy; we're still searching for an understanding of our true identity, making it challenging to choose what's right with a clear conscience. 

Displaying integrity in full view

Most of us have had some type of character and trust issue at one time or another in our lives which may have held us back. This is human of us and we are not broken nor need to be fixed.

But we do need to constantly monitor our choices and elevate our game. And to reach that optimum state of integrity where people trust you at your every word requires something not many are willing to do daily: exposing our values, beliefs, and convictions to others in close quarters.

See, when your actions are observed by peers and followers, and you know you can trust your own actions out in the open, your reputation is upheld. People never question your decisions or challenge you on an issue that opposes your character; they know where your stand.

The good news is that we all can turn our past failures and shortcomings into opportunities to grow our character, develop trust with others, and build leadership capacity to influence people to do great things.

Once we train our brain to operate this way regularly, we'll find the path where legacies are made, careers advance, and companies ultimately flourish. Integrity should always be a non-negotiable. Are you willing to start now?

Published on: Dec 27, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.