Consult Your Moral Compass

Consult Your Moral Compass

Touchstones that can guide you through life's crises.

Real moments of truth last far longer than a moment. They are high-stakes decisions about agonising moral dilemmas and sometimes indistinct trade-offs where deliberate thought and action is required.

Every moment of truth is like a storm on a leader's long voyage through life. Getting through these storms alive and well requires many choices.

Some are made in public - for example, hard decisions about your staff. Some are made in collaboration, such as executive committee choices on corporate strategy. But most are made quietly, when no one is looking. It is how you behave when no one is looking - facing the forces of human nature - that moulds your character, your leadership ability and your career.

Triumph in a moment of truth is about both doing the right thing and getting the right thing done well. Success requires preparation and a combination of decisiveness and reflection. In facing the chaos and disorder of challenging experiences, it helps to have touchstones to frame your response.

My touchstones come down to four elements that can be influenced and a fifth factor that can't. If you have a knowledge of the forces at work around you, a strong moral frame of reference, solidly built character and leadership ability - plus some good fortune - you can emerge from difficult situations stronger, wiser and more successful.

The Forces at Work

In most moments of truth, you will be at the mercy of elemental human forces that drive who we are - among them ego, shame, greed, desire, fear and fallibility. These human traits cannot be suppressed, but they can be understood and sometimes channelled. Fear can turn to insularity, indecision, panic and paranoia. Or fear can drive awareness, focus, courage and confrontation.

A pivotal moment for me occurred when I worked as a consultant, and under the influence of jet lag, lack of sleep and a 14-hour day, I left a stack of sensitive materials in a parking lot. In the middle of the night I woke up and realised my mistake, immediately buffeted by fear, shame and the desire for self-preservation. It took me hours of deliberation to come up with a plan.

In the morning, before anyone could confront me, I walked straight into the office of the client's CEO, confessed the magnitude of my error, took full responsibility and asked that he blame me, not my firm, and remove me from the job. After a moment of hesitation, he smiled and said I had just displayed the kind of character he wanted working for him and that he would be proud to have me continue on the project. A narrow escape.

A Moral Frame of Reference

Even if you understand the forces at work around you in a crisis, making the right choices requires a clear, moral frame of reference. This may come from one or more underpinnings: your upbringing, your friends, religious teachings or the law. The more of these sources you can use to frame a choice, the more robust your decision making in tough, ambiguous environments. A strictly legalistic or regulatory frame of reference, for example, will not support you in situations that are outside the strictures of the law or do not have a right answer.

Some of my most difficult moments of truth involved weighing loyalty to colleagues against the interests of stakeholders I was representing. When people I trusted and respected were beginning to operate beyond their ability - and this sometimes included myself - it took a strong sense of right and wrong to avoid simple notions of blame or accountability. Firing a key team member, for instance, might appear an easy resolution, but it could also have threatened the very interests I was responsible for by provoking unconstructive responses from other team members. Instead, I forced myself to carefully parse my responsibility and that of others, confront everyone with the gaps we faced as a team, and try to prepare us for bringing in others who would strengthen our collective ability but also diminish our personal wealth and position. Not an easy task.

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