The Price of Doing What’s Right—Willing to Pay it? | Leadership Courage

Coming face-to-face with “wrong” tests the leader in you. Doing something about it tests your courage.                     

To get around both, people say: 

  • It’s not my job.
  • Someone must have authorized that.
  • It must be okay if my boss is doing it.
  • I just don’t know enough to step in.
  • I don’t want to get involved in something messy. 

When we know something is wrong and don’t intervene, we become culpable. So whatever happens in the near or long-term, we share the blame. 

The power of fear 

Lots of bad things go on at work: 

  • Bullying and harassment
  • Lying and records tampering
  • Misuse of technology
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Collusion and fraud 

We may witness things that are a big deal or seemingly minor, like the difference between a bold-face lie and a white one. Both are, of course, lies. 

We may sense that something isn’t right or see it clear as day. In both cases, we are faced with a choice—to speak/act or stay silent/do nothing. 

There are laws that protect whistle blowers which may be of small comfort. We’re often more concerned about what will happen to us if we “go to someone in authority.” Once we do that, our work life and/or our career likely changes forever. 

So we’re faced with what we stand for and who we really are—someone more interested in our own best interest or an advocate for doing what’s right. That’s a question to ask your reflection in the nearest mirror. 

Stand tall 

No matter where you are on the organization chart, you’re in a position to protect what’s right. Recently, Chris Matthews from MSNBC’s Hardball called attention to those “people with moral authority who perform in a lowly way” when speaking about the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University. 

Matthews reminded viewers that there are people in authority who are more interested in protecting what’s good for them and the brand of their organization than doing what’s morally and ethically right for individuals, the community, and/or society. 

Jack McCallum, long time writer for Sports Illustrated and grad school friend of mine, recently wrote a column about an interview he’d done with alleged sexual predator, Jerry Sandusky from Penn State, where Jack confessed he’d been fooled about the guy. 

Jack shared these insights with a college class he was teaching that included discussion about “group mindset and the power of the brand:”

We do not know all that happened at Penn State, but we know this much: The Football Program, the engine that brings in $50 million profit and defines the school much more than its outstanding academic curriculum, is to be protected at all costs. Over the years — through national championships, expansion of Beaver Stadium, the flood of donor millions and canonization of Saint Joe — that mindset had calcified and become S.O.P. [standard operating procedure], as it does at so many football power palaces. 

At some time in the future, I told the members of my class, there’s a good chance they will be asked to choose between protecting the institution and doing the right thing. That choice will not be simple because there is strength in numbers, security in the collective and a selfish investment in group success. Doing the right thing is sometimes the hardest thing when it should be the easiest.

Chris Matthews makes the point that we each need to fight to protect right and undo wrong by bringing it into our roles, whatever they are and wherever we work.

Call to action

It’s time to ask yourself some “What would I do questions?” How far are you willing to go to protect one person, a group, your company, or society? It’s a question that leads to answers about your courage, leadership, and conviction.

I have written before how important it is to be vigilant at work. Always ask yourself, “What’s really going on here?” and “What is this person about?” Both questions will help you see what others don’t, position you to act with confidence, and recognize what’s just and what isn’t.

Photo from bean45cc via Flickr

12 thoughts on “The Price of Doing What’s Right—Willing to Pay it? | Leadership Courage

  1. I think it’s interesting that I just read Cat in the Hat to my daughter’s class, a group of 4 and 5 year olds. For those who remember, the book closes with the lines, “Should we tell her about it? Well..what you do if your mother asked you?” So I posed the question to the class. Nearly every child said they would make something up (i.e. lie). I was shocked. In his book Nurtureshock, Po Bronson says we need to be talking openly with our children about these issues, about why lying is wrong even if (or esp. if) we’re trying to protect ourselves from punishment. I wonder if over the years, our desire to shield our children from the news has led to a degradation of the moral compass, because we simply don’t talk about the real consequences of not speaking the truth when it’s hard.

    • Jen, you’ve really hit on an important perspective here with an amazing experience that gives it great power. I’m fearful that our moral compass as a society has degraded. We only have to listen to politicians who bend the truth and excuse improper actions. Then there are the business power brokers who write policies and sell products that misrepresent promises–the Bernie Madoffs of the world. There are teachers and policemen in the news too who do wrong things. Whether there are many or only a few, the impact of their stories, spread widely over all media, paint a picture of what’s okay and what’s not and what people can get away with. You are so right, we need to teach children that doing the right thing matters, even if they may a price for it. In the old days, it was called standing up for principle. Thanks, Jen, for this wonderful comment and illustration. ~Dawn

  2. Perhaps there are more people that have lost their moral compass than there use to be. However, as far back as my memory goes, there were always negative terms for telling on someone: ratting them out. “don’t be a tattletale” sqealor. So, has that much changed or do we just know about tragedies and scandals more than we did, which is, in many ways a good thing.
    The scandal at Penn State has had and will continue to have large ripple affects, which hopefully will elicit a lot of discussions of the sort Jen and you are talking about.

    Powerful post Dawn. You made your points without having to give the specifics of Sandusky’s case, which I think creates the larger discussion that needs to be had.

    • You’re right, Cherry, for ages there has been that “don’t be a snitch” rule in many circles. We hear a lot about it today when there are crimes committed in neighborhoods plagued by gangs. It’s not just in business, politics, and sports that the problem arises. It seems that there’s a pervasive fear of the consequences to the person on the side of doing the right thing. We ask ourselves the question, “Will the powerful turn things around and sully my name?” Something needs to change. Maybe what we’re seeing is a beginning. I hope so. Great comment, ~Dawn

  3. This is an important and powerful post. Societies and organizations need people who will take personal risks to do the right thing. Unfortunately, with the current economic climate, even otherwise good people are burying their heads in the sand. In doing so, they are deliberately choosing to allow vulnerable people to be victimized. I believe that there is a long-term cost to this. The ripples from bad actions can grow over time into a big wave that threatens the organization.

    • Melanie, you’ve really hit the nail on the head here: “The ripples from bad actions can grow over time into a big wave that threatens the organization.” That’s why it’s so important for us to do what’s right before the situation we’re looking at has engulfing implications. Lots of small right actions can avoid a lot of serious consequences. Great comment as always, ~Dawn

  4. We make choices everyday and also have to ask what the price is for not doing what’s right.
    Thanks for bringing one of the most important issues up.
    Make me think about the occupy movement protesting that the 1% make decisions on behalf of the 99%.

    • Irene, you add another important situation to the discussion–Occupy Wall Street. As you suggest, if the imbalances in the economy had been identified, acknowledged, and addressed years ago before things bubbled over, we’d very likely be looking at a very different situation today. Hindsight is always 20/20 but doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always be looking and questioning. Great points, ~Dawn

  5. Pingback: How to Discipline a Child – Dr. Nelsen TV Interview – Positive Discipline is not Permissive | Children Development Stages

  6. Take responsibility for the actions around you – not just your own. Once you know something you are obligated to do something about it. I wish more people learned this…

    • So true, Daria. We need to be “our brother’s keeper” and step up to do the right thing every time. Great to hear from you and to know that you’re still in the mix. Please keep in touch. ~Dawn

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