An effective public works leader...possesses integrity

George E. (Ed) Wolf, P.E.
Public Works Director (retired)
City of Kansas City, Missouri
Former Member, APWA Government Affairs Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has published the brochure entitled "Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies." The brochure is based on a survey of public works officials and those who employ them to determine the most important characteristics of an effective public works leader. These "Baker's Dozen" core competencies help public works professionals recognize and develop leadership talent. Included in this issue is the tenth in our series of core competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

Recent events have provided a striking dichotomy. During the first few days following President Reagan's death, many of his friends and associates defined him as "a man of strong integrity." They would then add that he was honest, principled and committed. Most children of Reagan's generation and prior generations were raised with values and a healthy respect for what was right or wrong. Normally it was assumed that these women and men had integrity unless they acted to the contrary.

President Reagan's persona, compared to the behavior of some of the Abu Ghraib Prison guards, demonstrates an alarming contrast. Apparently the people responsible for the prisoners, left to their own devices, had a disturbing sense of right and wrong. Representatives of our armed forces have since cited the lack of a code or set of rules for their behavior. It would appear that we can no longer presume that the majority of our population has integrity.

An article in NSPE's July 2004 issue of Engineering Times presents some disconcerting data regarding cheating among college engineering students. The article states "A 1964 study by a Columbia University teacher surveyed 6,000 students and found that 30% of engineering students said they had cheated. A 1992 study conducted by Donald McCabe, a Rutgers researcher on academic integrity, found that about 82% of engineering students reported cheating in college compared with 71% of natural science students and 73% of social science students." If this was the only study of this nature, we could take it as possibly an anomaly. Unfortunately there have been numerous studies and articles all reporting the same trend. It would at least appear that there is a changing values system at work among our youth and that this change is dramatic just within the last 30 years. Note also the lack of moral integrity displayed by numerous top officers in major corporations during the past few years.

What is happening to our society and how can we deal with it? Before answering those questions, we must share an understanding of integrity. Many dictionary definitions use terms like moral soundness; material wholeness; honesty; completeness; freedom from corrupting influence. Some sources speak of moral integrity. This term is actually redundant, as having integrity requires one to think and act morally. Given, there can be disagreement on what is or is not moral. Nonetheless, integrity is an innate trait that provides one with an internal moral/values compass. Integrity is a personal relationship that we have with ourselves.

We are all familiar with structural integrity as it applies to buildings and bridges. A properly designed and maintained structure can endure the elements for centuries. A proper foundation is equally important for humans. However, the weakening and failure of just one structural component can cause complete failure of the entire system. So it is also with human integrity.

Integrity includes being committed and true to yourself. It requires a conscience. Often our personal values are much different than those of others. Persons of integrity can disagree and yet respect each other for their integrity. For example, look at the disagreement over urban sprawl vs. urban core redevelopment. Many of you have been in the middle of controversial highway capacity improvement projects that might be mitigated through innovative mass transportation alternatives. Professionals and citizens are passionate and committed to their own core values. They each can have integrity, different as their values may be.

So, do we need guidelines or codes? We have noted what appears to be a decline in personal integrity within our society in the last 40 years. Interestingly, there is a similar change in the dictionary definition of integrity. As early as 1976 the New College Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary defined it as "Ridged adherence to a code of behavior." Rather than integrity being one's own ability to determine right or wrong and acting accordingly, it now could be reliance on a written code of behavior. These definitions trace a changing culture.

Although this change is regrettable, the reality must be accepted and our future actions adjusted accordingly. Thus, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee is commended for the establishment of the "Core Competences" or the "Baker's Dozen." These indeed provide excellent value guidelines for all public works leaders.

It is no accident that integrity is the first of the "Baker's Dozen." Unless we have integrity, the other twelve values are words and promises without fulfillment. Integrity is the foundation for the other twelve competencies.

Integrity is a trait that hopefully dwells within each of us. We cannot improve another person's integrity, but we can work hard to hone our own and lead others by example. In fact there is a strong link between an individual's integrity and his or her ability to lead. Managers lacking in integrity can and often do manage, but an effective leader must have personal integrity.

A leader with integrity is enabled to ask their organization to do as they do. Many well-intended, shared-value programs have failed because managers defined the values, passed them down to their coworkers and expected them to happen. Unfortunately, disillusionment occurs when it becomes obvious that the managers have initiated "do as I say" rather than "do as I do."

Effective leaders will expect their organizations to have integrity. They should seek to surround themselves with others of integrity. They should encourage those with integrity and discourage those without it. Strive to be a "transparent organization." Conduct your affairs such that they might be observed by anyone at anytime. Hide nothing and do the right thing even when no one will ever know.

Cover-ups of information or mistakes (public persons seem to have more trouble admitting mistakes of late) cause an organization to be defensive as this is the only way to obscure the truth. Think about it! When pressed by the media, have you or your organization ever tried to evade the truth just a little bit? This is a presidential election year and soon the "spin doctors" will be demonstrating their dexterity with words. How many times have we put a little spin on reports, presentations or program updates just to make them a little more interesting or acceptable? Or worse yet, maybe they would be unacceptable without some stretching of the facts. If we have to use spin, then obviously we are resorting to the use of distortion. Spin and integrity are not compatible concepts. Effective public works professionals should aspire to building a transparent organization free from any form of distortion and completely visible to the public at all times.

Structural integrity is a metaphor for human character and integrity. If your integrity were to have a codes inspection, would all the character traits be in order? If we had an integrity quotient of one to ten, what would your quotient be?

Ed Wolf, P.E., a past APWA Top Ten recipient, can be reached at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Possesses Integrity
  • Is Accountable
  • Is Decisive
  • Is Public Service Oriented
  • Empowers Others
  • Is Deliberate
  • Is a Communicator
  • Shows Respect for Others
  • Is Technically Knowledgeable
  • Manages Resources
  • Is Resilient
  • Delegates
  • Maintains Balance