Unmistakable Integrity Starts with the Tone at the Top

By Dan Busby

Dennis Kozlowski joined Tyco in 1975 and became CEO in 1992. With Kozlowski at the helm, Tyco expanded massively during the late 1990s. The company consistently beat Wall Street’s expectations and through a series of strategic mergers and acquisitions, ushered in a new era of mega-conglomerates.

Kozlowski lost his job in June 2002 as he faced accusations that he looted company assets to the tune of over $100 million. Speaking to the parole board before he was released in 2013, he said: “Back when I was running Tyco, I was living in a CEO-type bubble. I had a strong sense of entitlement at that time.”[1]

Kozlowski set the tone at the top, and it was simply the wrong tone. So it can be with leaders of churches. The church grows, annual revenues exceed the budget, new facilities (and debt) are added, yet it is so easy for the loss of integrity to creep in when everything appears to be going well.

Integrity appears in both very small ways and very significant ways. Here are a few examples.

  • Making notes on credit card statements to document entertainment expenses is too time-consuming for the lead pastor. He has more important things to do. The CFO asks for the substantiation for the expenses, but the information is never provided, even after repeated requests. 
  • The lead pastor drives a church-owned vehicle, but documenting the personal miles for the car is a hassle so this documentation is not completed.
  • The lead pastor frequently charges personal items on the church’s credit card. The CFO asks for a repayment of the personal items but is rebuffed. Fearing for her job, the CFO does not add the personal expenses to the lead pastor’s Form W-2.
  • The church purchases “key-man” life insurance for the lead pastor. He insists that the insurance premiums are tax-free and should not be reported as taxable income to him. Again, the CFO is caught between what the lead pastor demands and what he knows is right.
  • The lead pastor urges the board to transfer church-owned real estate to him at a cost far below market value. The board reluctantly agrees. The church considers the transaction a sale with no additional compensation attributed to the lead pastor.

Unmistakable integrity requires character—derived from a Latin root that means “engraved.” A life, like a block of granite carved upon with care or hacked at with reckless disregard, will, at the end, be either a masterpiece or marred rubble. Character, the composite of virtues and values etched in that living stone, will define its true worth.[2]

Abraham Lincoln well understood the importance of setting the tone at the top. He said: “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”[3]

Integrity travels down the organizational chart, but rarely up the chart. When the top leader sets the unmistakable integrity tone, a strong message is communicated to other staff.

When unmistakable integrity is demonstrated by the church staff, the message will be spread to those who interact with staff. 

The lead pastor should also articulate a compelling vision of unmistakable integrity. And it must be repeated often because, as Bill Hybels writes, “vision leaks.”[4]

It is a spiritual law: Leadership means leading by example. No one is expected to follow leaders unless they lead by example.

Our Lord Jesus Christ provided the ultimate example of setting the tone at the top. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd laid down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). In this verse we see the perfect description of a Christian leader.

Leaders set an example demonstrated by their life. The Bible makes it clear in these passages:

  •  “But mostly, show them all this by doing it yourself, incorruptible in your teaching, your words solid and sane” (Titus 2:7–8a).
  • “After he had finished washing their feet, he took his robe, put it back on, and went back to his place at the table. Then he said, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am’” (John 13:12–13). Jesus set the example, taking the place of the lowest household servant. Then he began to teach them.
  • “Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized” (Phil. 4:9).
  • “Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. ‘The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer’” (Matt. 23:1–3).

John MacArthur shares, “Under the plan God has ordained for the church, leadership is a position of humble, loving service. Those whom God designates as leaders are not called to be governing monarchs but humble slaves; not slick celebrities, but laboring servants. Those who would lead God’s people must above all exemplify sacrifice, devotion, submission, and lowliness. Jesus Himself gave us the pattern when He stooped to wash His disciples’ feet, a task that was customarily done by the lowest of slaves.”[5]

Staff come to respect their leaders when they see them put in practice what they preach—seeing it in action leverages Christ-centered leadership.

Max De Pree explains, “Followers, too, yearn for trust. They want badly to believe their leaders and to trust them to do what they say they will do. To be effective and productive, followers must be able to trust and be trusted. Followers seem to have a more reliable intuition about trust and its healthy effects than many leaders give them credit for. When trust permeates a group, great things are possible, not the least of which is a true opportunity to reach our potential.”[6]

“Trust grows when people see leaders translate their personal integrity into organizational fidelity. At the heart of fidelity lies truth telling and promise keeping. In organizations, truth is not, as some people think, power. Truth sets us free. Truth gathers no adjectives.”[7]

“Leaders who keep their promises and followers who respond in kind create an opportunity togenerate enormous energy around their commitment to serve others.”[8]


[1] Moneywatch, Dec. 3, 2012, http://www. cbsnews.com/news/ex-tyco-ceo-kozlowski-leaving-prison.

[2] Rutland, Mark, Character Matters, Charisma House, 2003, p. 1.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, speech at Clinton, Illinois, Sept. 8, 1854.

[4] Hybels, Bill, Leadership Axioms, Zondervan, 2008, p. 52.

[5] MacArthur, John, “Wanted:  a Few Good Shepherds (Must Know How to Wash Feet),” http://www.christianity.com/theology/wanted-a-few-good-shepherds-must-know-how-to-wash-feet-11542380.html.

[6] De Pree, Max, Leading Without Power, Jossey Bass 1997, p. 123.

[7] Ibid, p. 127.

[8] Ibid, p. 129.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.