As we witness the imposed grounding of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, the recent college admissions scandal in the US, and the seemingly daily reports of the unscrupulous behavior of politicians, we find claims of unethical behavior are rarely out of the news. We can easily pass judgment on these examples of misconduct and wrongdoing based on our ability to clearly define the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately, the greater challenges for conscious leaders are the choices between right and right. Choosing between multiple right paths requires organizational leaders to apply the practices of leading consciously to complex decisions. Aspiring conscious leaders are aware of the ethical imperatives of business leadership and choose the right path for the greater good.
Much of my understanding and learning on right-versus-right decision making has been drawn from the teachings of Joseph Badaracco, the John Shad professor of business ethics at Harvard Business School. Badaracco’s Defining Moments is an excellent treatise for understanding the powerful and irrevocable consequences for the lives of leaders who must make seemingly impossible decisions. Through three case examples, Badaracco presents an unorthodox yet pragmatic way to think about and resolve the right-versus-right choices organizational leaders face. I summarized my learnings from Badaracco in The Inner Journey to Conscious Leadership and have included an extract from the book here.
The challenge is not in simply summoning the courage to do the right thing but in deciding which right thing to do—not about whether to be ethical but how to be ethical. Badaracco offers examples of challenging dilemmas. Standing in front of a burning building, you realize that you can run to one part of the building and save a single child, or you can run to another part and save three children. In neither case is there any risk to you, but there’s no way to save everyone, and you must choose between saving three children or saving one. Choosing the right path for the greater good suggests saving three children rather than one. But what if the one child was your own son or daughter? The responsibility to protect your child from danger is in conflict with saving the lives of other three children.
Right-versus-right choices often arise as urgent, complicated, and sometimes painful issues of personal integrity and moral identity. Responsibilities to multiple stakeholders as described in a previous post may conflict with a leader’s personal and organizational obligations. Badaracco introduces four important questions to consider when faced with these right-versus-right decisions: How do my feelings and intuitions define, for me, the right-versus-right conflict? Which of the responsibilities and values in conflict have the deepest roots in my life and in communities I care about? Looking to the future, what is my way? And how can expediency and shrewdness, along with imagination and boldness, move me toward the goals I care about most strongly?
The first question goes beyond the conscious leader’s practice of feeling all the feelings, asking more about what your feelings tell you, aligning with the adage “we see the world not as it is but as we are.” The second question about the responsibilities and values in conflict involves learning who you have been on the way to becoming who you are. This is an effort to understand which values and commitments have defined your moral identity. The third question, what is my way, is not simply about the culmination of past experiences but requires looking at critical choices as the first steps in shaping your future self, looking forward down the road, not only through the rearview mirror. The fourth question is about seeing the world as it really is and asking what will work in the world as it is, not as I want it to be.
Right-versus-right choices are defining moments in which leaders with responsibilities to themselves, other people in the organization, and to society at large, reveal, test, and shape—sometimes irrevocably—their values and those of their organizations. In the modern world, lives are hectic with little time or space to contemplate these right-versus-right decisions.
The practices of living mindfully and finding moments of serenity can help in determining ways to keep the immediately important from overwhelming the fundamentally important. Although mission statements and credos are often too vague to provide guidelines for right-versus-right
decision-making, a clearly defined individual or organizational purpose can help guide right-versus-right decisions for the greater good of all stakeholders.