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.

Focusing in on the New Year


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Jack Palance (as Curly in City Slickers) knew it. There are multiple best selling books that promote it. A jewelry entrepreneur has made sure you can wear it. Devotionals and guides for spiritual growth are built around it. What is it? That’s for you to decide. It could be lots of things. To have maximum impact, however, you have to choose. One word . . . one focus . . . one “thing.”

That might sound easy enough, but it is actually really, really hard. We live in a world with hundreds of channels, thousands of social media friends, untold experts telling you to go in every imaginable direction. We have come to expect our lives will offer an instantaneous smorgasbord of options and opportunities . . . and it often does. It’s exhausting. When we are constantly scanning the horizon, moving in this direction and then that to make sure we don’t miss anything . . . when our attention is spread a mile wide and an inch deep . . . it doesn’t take much of a gust of wind to knock us off balance. How will your staff know if they are moving in the right direction when they see you moving in three or four? After all, as Lewis Carroll noted, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Identifying your, or your organization’s, one thing is not something that should be taken lightly. It will mean saying no to things that other people, experts even, think you should pursue. It will shape your decisions and actions in ways that may not make sense to others. I’ll let you in on a little secret . . . that’s okay! It’s your thing, not theirs. And when you settle in on your one thing, amazing things start to happen. For organizations, it can be incredibly energizing. People get excited when they know where they are headed . . . clearly, succinctly, not in a 47 page document but in a single phrase. And when your staff know where they are going, they can help you identify additional ways to get there. Rather than limiting your options, when you focus on one thing you just might be amazed at the opportunities that present themselves.

As you look toward a new year, do you (and your people!) know where your organization is headed? I’m not talking about specific projects. I mean strategically . . . culturally . . . down into the DNA of your organization. Yeah, there. Fundamentally, at your core, do you have a clear path? Do you know your focus, your one thing? If you don’t, it’s a sure bet no one else in your organization does either. Find it, and . . . well, to paraphrase Curly, “you stick to that, and the rest doesn’t mean a thing.” Happy New Year!