Do you know how to read and use your moral compass? We all have one in our “soul pocket,” but we sometimes forget to use it. Of course each of us have our own unique compass and mine is likely different from yours. But what surprises me often is that we don’t read and use our own compass to make better decisions. While there are many high profile examples of leaders who didn’t use their moral compass, how can you be sure you won’t be next?

Our Moral Compass. When I think about a moral compass I think about a set of personal values that guide our decision making. These values reside in our hearts and have been formed over our lifetime. Most of us have many values, but only a few (three to five) become our “core values.” A few examples of values are: integrity, family, fairness, personal responsibility, and kindness. We develop our core values during our early years and their formation comes from the influences made by family, friends, organizations (e.g. churches, Scouts), and role models (e.g. coaches, neighbors). If you would like to explore your own core values I recommend this exercise at the Center for Ethical Leadership’s website.

Reading Our Moral Compass. The most common mistake leaders make at some point during their career is not “reading” their Moral Compass. By “reading” I mean using your mind to understand how your values might affect a decision you are about to make. For example, a few years ago we had to terminate a manager for falsifying an expense report. He otherwise had a pretty solid management history. I’d like to believe (maybe I’m naïve) that had he “thought” about his core values first, he would not have done what he did.

Using Our Moral Compass. After we read our moral compass we need to “use it” to make ethical decisions. This is where the rubber meets the road and presents our biggest challenge. Sometimes leaders read their compass, hear that important little voice in their head, and then make a decision that takes them in a direction opposite from the one their values directed. Why?

Here are three reasons why, in my opinion, we don’t follow our core values.

  1. The leader believes the ethical choice would have difficult or challenging short-term side effects. It might create more work for them or more conflict. For example, I have seen managers avoid talking with low-performing team members because they were afraid of conflict or were afraid the person would quit. (Leader core value – work ethic, responsibility.)
  2. The leader believes their ethical choice is in conflict with what the organization or his/her supervisor wants. This, frankly, is the most difficult situation for leaders within an organization. Joseph Badaracco, in his book Defining Moments, refers to this as choosing between right and right. An appropriate example he uses is when a mid-level leader needs to deal with a team member who is not getting her work done because of family demands. The supervisor/leader empathizes with the person and gives her more latitude, which is consistent with the leader’s core value – family. However, the leader is getting pressure from co-workers and supervisors, who believe that treating her differently is not fair to her team mates and the organization. (This type of decision is one where a leader might think about using the steps outlined at the end of this article.)
  3. Finally, they choose to violate their values because of the benefits the opposite decision brings them. This final reason is the most dangerous to a leader’s standing and will have the greatest impact on their leadership viability. One example I recall is when one of our market leaders deliberately set-up a company to compete with us, recruited our team members, and convinced our clients to follow her, all while still working for us. I prefer to think that she knowingly violated one of her core values (fairness), but it is likely she has core values that conflict with ours (Her value – all’s fair in love and war.)

Ethical Advice from Peter Drucker. I think all leaders would serve their followers well if they always followed this advice from Peter Drucker, “Do not knowingly do harm.” Of course the key word here is “knowingly”. I think knowing how to read and use your moral compass will help you make better ethical decisions.


Helpful Steps for Making Important Ethical Decisions.
When I face a difficult ethical decision, I have found these three steps helpful from David Lassiter at The Center for Business and Ethics at Loyola Marymount University: 

  1. Analyze the consequences/side effects of the decision
    • a. Who will be helped by what I do?
    • b. Who will be harmed?
    • c. What kind of benefits and harms are we talking about? (Some are more significant or more harmful than others: good health, someone’s trust are valuable benefits, more so than, say, less conflict for me.)
    • d. How does all of this look over the long run as well as the short run? 
  2. Analyze the actions.
    • a. Consider all of the options from a different perspective, without thinking about the consequences.
    • b. How do the actions measure up against society’s moral principles like honesty, fairness, equality, respecting the dignity of others, people’s rights? (Consider the common good.)
    • c. Do any of the actions “cross the line?”
    • d. If there’s a conflict between principles or between the rights of different people involved, is there a way to see one principle as more important than the others?
    • e. Which option offers actions that are least problematic? 
  3. Make a decision. Take both parts of your analysis into account and make a decision. This strategy at least gives you some basic steps you can follow.

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