Shades of Gray

White Painted Textured Background With Brush StrokesIt seems far too common these days to find headlines that reflect an apparent lack of ethics in leadership. How does this happen? What has led to what some might consider to be an ethics crisis among leaders? Is it power? . . . ego? . . . a lack of morals? Undoubtedly in some cases, it is one or all of these things. In other cases, however, the issue is not so black and white.

Choices between right and wrong are fairly easy. It’s making choices between two “right” answers that gets a bit trickier . . . where each possible choice reflects a core value of the organization, and a decision has to be made regarding which value should take precedence in a given situation. Suddenly, a leader may be faced with a whole lot of gray.

Should decisions be made in the best interest of . . .

. . . the individual or the organization?

. . . short-term or long-term impact?

. . . responsibility or loyalty?

. . . duty, rights, virtue or relationships?

It all depends on where you are standing, the perspective you choose, as you weigh the options.

When external rules or expectations would direct an organization to take a course of action that would not be in the best interest of a specific individual, what is an organization to do? Look out for the individual and risk some degree of sanction for the organization? Perhaps . . . if you used an individual lens. What if such sanction would impact the organization’s ability to serve other individuals in the future, would that change the decision? Does the degree of harm — to the individual or the organization — factor into the decision? So many shades of gray.

Leaders have to deal, often on a daily basis, with the messy reality of competing demands, pressures, expectations and values. Courses of action that may seem clear in hindsight are often mired in a gray fog at the point a leader must choose a path forward. That is simply the reality of leadership. So how does one make the “best” ethical decision?

  • Clearly articulate organizational values and the predominant perspective the organization will use to guide decision-making. For example, “we will act in ways that sustain the organization for the long term.”
  • Engage in transparent dialog to gain a variety of perspectives. At times, a leader may not even recognize there could be other perspectives to consider. Voicing the dilemma, encouraging feedback, and discussing options can help clarify the path forward.
  • Step back from the issue at hand. When you look at any decision too narrowly it can keep you from considering the full implications of a decision. Ethics can be a slippery slope when you look at individual decisions in isolation.

Know your values and priorities, openly discuss the tough decisions, and look at the big picture. The answer still may not be black and white, but taking these steps can help a leader reduce the shades of gray.

Ask and You Shall Receive

As leaders trying to best position our agencies for future impact, we follow the trends, listen to the experts, at times invest significant dollars bringing in consultants to help us assess the situation, and yet far too often I think we overlook the potential competitive advantage sitting right under our nose. We forget to ask the opinion of those closest to the work at hand. I’m not talking about your leadership team, although their best thinking is a critical part of the equation, I’m talking about those middle managers who are overseeing the day-to-day operations . . . those who come face to face with the shortcomings of your “transformational plans” and know the workarounds and adaptations that have seeped into the daily pressures to meet seemingly conflicting goals.

Yeah, those people . . . those gold mines of information who, as a result of incredible loyalty to the organization, and/or perhaps with a measure of a “once bit twice shy” attitude toward sharing unwanted feedback, aren’t likely to tell you what they’re really feeling unless you ask . . . and they believe you really want to know . . . what they think.

But if you take the time to ask, and they believe you really want to know . . . Jackpot!

I’m not saying you will necessarily love everything they have to say. (But if you’re honest with yourself, I’m guessing even those things that are hard to hear will have a ring of truth to them.) What I am saying is the nuggets of wisdom that will come out of such conversations will likely knock your socks off. I mean . . . you knew you had great people, but . . .Wow! Because here’s the deal . . . No consultant, regardless of how smart, is going to have the passion for your organization that your people do. No outside expert will have devoted the hours, stress and tears to the organization that your people have. They may not have as many letters after their name as some advisor, but no idea — regardless of how good it might look on paper — will come to fruition without their buy-in . . . so ask them!

And then, (and this is key) you don’t get to tell them that how they feel “isn’t true” or they “shouldn’t” feel that way, 1) because perception is reality, and 2) if you do, you can guarantee they will be keeping their thoughts to themselves in the future. And that, without a doubt, would be to your detriment.

So if you want to weigh the good, the bad, the ugly, and the occasional wild hair idea that may hold a nugget of genius, it’s really not all that hard . . .

Ask, and you shall receive!