What you do when no one is watching will define who you are when everyone is watching.

Nerd confession: In the days before iPads and tablets, I used to steal math workbooks from the teacher’s shelf (sorry Miss Jackson) for me and a few of my friends. It was 3rd grade, but whatever I was learning at the time (and I’m sure you can relate) was boring, uninteresting, and uninspiring. I grew up on the east side of town, so I didn’t have the luxury of just going outside to play all the time. So, I mostly stayed in the house, played video games, read Harry Potter, and would complete those 4th and 5th grade workbooks, unbeknownst to my teachers and family. It sounds silly now, but at the age of 7 or 8, I actually thought I was committing a crime! But looking back, it was just a microcosm of who I always tried to be—a benevolent trouble-maker, which was a lot better on my conscience and a lot more fun than being a deceitful do-gooder. But the biggest lesson I took from those days is that those private decisions we’ve made decades ago determine who we are today.

Life is just a long sequence of interconnected decisions that slightly shifts in trajectory with every decision you make (see figure below). The mistake we all make is thinking that most of our decisions are independent of each other, and that eating that bag of potato chips or just one more hand at the blackjack table won’t matter. But it does. It always does. As James Clear says, “every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” And given the fact that we spend the majority of our time out of the public eye (and even more so during COVID), it’s critical that we understand the vital importance of the votes we cast when no one is watching. It’s called integrity. It’s the foundation of trust. And trust is the foundation of principled leadership. What you do when no one is watching always rears its head in public eventually.

Think about the concept of integrity in terms of your favorite performers or sports team—in my case, the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2020, they had a dismal record of 4 wins, 11 losses, and 1 tie. These were televised games that anyone could watch. Every decision, every mistake, and every injury was in the public eye. But it was in practice, when no one was watching, that the foundation for such a miserable season was set. No matter how much the players and coaches professed their commitment to the fans, their lack of preparation was as obvious as the sun shines. It was what they did when the cameras were on that revealed the truth of what they did when the cameras were off. We didn’t need to see what they were doing in practice. We didn’t need to rely on their word. The decisions they made and habits they built when no one was watching manifested on gameday. It’s that simple. And it works the same way for every one of us in the real world. The truth always has a way of shining through, no matter how dark the night is when you make your decisions.

Living a life of integrity is more important to the cause of good leadership than anything you do as a leader. It is the manifestation of the votes you cast privately. It is how you earn the confidence of your subordinates and superiors. It’s the pinnacle of trust. Be mindful of the decisions you make when there is seemingly no accountability because every decision you make is linked to the next, and then the next, and then the truth. Even if you think no one is watching, even if you think you can get away with a bad decision, act as if the walls around you have eyes so that you never need to sweat when you actually have eyes on you. Of course, no one is perfect. We all make mistakes. We all have our foibles. But as I learned as a 3rd grader, it’s better to be the benevolent trouble-maker than the deceitful do-gooder.

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