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Meet the former janitor who runs the world’s biggest oil company

July 9, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
rubin/wiese photography

Fortune 500 Insider is our newest online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation, has answered the question: What’s one quality that drives your company’s success?

Integrity is essential and irreplaceable. It is the most valuable asset for a person, a company, or a society seeking to build and progress.

Over the past decade, we have been reminded several times of how a lack of integrity in business and government can have severe consequences, undermining markets, institutions, and even costing people their jobs and savings. In the business world, we can point to instances when a lack of integrity has bankrupted entire companies — in sectors as different as finance, telecommunications, manufacturing, and energy.

Throughout my life and career, I have continually been impressed with the importance of integrity — whether it was growing up as a Boy Scout, working in one of my first jobs as a university janitor, or being a leader in a Fortune 500 company.

Simply put, integrity is the foundation for sustained success at every level and in every organization.

In the world of engineering, we often refer to structural integrity. For a building or a bridge to have structural integrity, it must be built with sturdy design and solid construction materials. Similarly, for an individual life or an organization to have integrity, it must be built on a foundation of honesty and trust, with a strong commitment to ethical action at every step. Compromise on ethical conduct is not an option.

Integrity is an essential value because it inspires an unflagging effort to do the right thing, the right way, every time — whether anyone is looking or not. It guides individuals and businesses alike, leading to higher standards, accountability, openness to improvement, and long-term excellence. In contrast, taking shortcuts leads to shortsightedness, poor results, or worse.

For leaders at all levels, it is also important to remember that integrity is universally valued. In a global economy, integrity crosses cultures and enables visionary international partnerships and joint ventures to advance and succeed. A shared focus on integrity makes trust and cooperation possible and enables employees taking on ambitious projects to honestly assess their performance, helping them to innovate and to improve constantly.

At ExxonMobil (XOM), we have identified four types of integrity that govern our business activities.

First, there is operational integrity, which helps us manage the risks of daily operations at oil and gas facilities, protecting lives and the environment. Second, there is scientific or technical integrity, which ensures we solve problems through open and respectful dialogue guided by science and the best practices from engineering. Third, there is personal integrity, which ensures we hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards on our way to a shared objective. And finally, there is managerial integrity, which builds trust and helps us set an example as both a leader and a follower — which are equally critical for fostering the culture of an organization.

For ExxonMobil, this multi-faceted application of integrity helps us maximize value and efficiency across the energy supply chain. It defines our approach to project execution at every stage all over the world — leading to capital projects that are on time, on budget, and accomplished in a way that is safe, secure, and environmentally responsible. Such successes leave an imprint on host governments, business partners, customers, and community members, and they also help frame the expectations and standards that will be applied to new opportunities.

The demands on leaders in the 21st century are significant. The challenges we face are many. But by recognizing the role of integrity in success, we can do our part to restore confidence in business, government, and markets. We can get and accept the feedback that allows organizations to change, improve, and compete more effectively.

On an individual level, integrity gives us confidence that we have the right compass to guide decisions — and create a culture — that will stand the test of time. In a world that is becoming more interconnected and more competitive, I believe a commitment to integrity will only grow in importance, acting as the distinguishing standard that defines authentic leadership, builds strong community, strengthens international cooperation, and ultimately enables us to excel and advance together.