“…But I must make decisions everyday that I hope are just. I don’t know right from wrong all the time. I wish I did. But what I can’t be is indecisive…”
I so agree with Frank Underwood, said the weary leader to me the other day. (You see, I am his inner compass that he often converses with).
Let me take half a minute to explain what the quote is all about. Frank Underwood, as the US President in the TV serial ‘House of Cards’, speaks these words. Yes, it is just a script. And yes, Underwood is Machiavellian to the core and not worthy of emulation.
And now, let us go back to my friend.
His burrowed forehead was etched with the burden of others’ expectations of him to be decisive. Of course, he knows that this burden came with his trophy of leadership. And he is trained to handle it too.
How easy is it to be just, ethical and decisive, I goaded him.
Not easy, duh – he was scathing. And not as simple as you think either. And here’s the scary part, he said. People are so unforgiving even if they perceive that we failed to vault over any of those three criteria.
That my friend, I said, is the crown of thorns you wear as a leader.
Tell me, he quizzed. What is it that people want of us as just and decisive leaders?
A mirror does not have all the answers. So I turned to the definitions in the Marine Corps Leadership book. Decisiveness, it summarizes, is the ability to weigh all facts, and act calmly and quickly to arrive at a sound decision. Justice, in their lexicon is the practice of being fair and consistent. Integrity means being honest and truthful in what you say or do.
Oh, please… he cringed. Can’t you see the how the power of perception is stacked against us? What seems calm to you may look like bristling to others. A sound decision to others may look like unhinged thinking to you. As for being consistent, once is good enough for some, while for others even ten can be ‘flashes in the pan’! Fair, honest, truthful – there are so many innovative interpretations!
Good points, I agreed. So why don’t we start with intent?
He warmed up to the idea. Let’s say I have the unquestionable intent of being just and ethical, he said. Depending on my personality and beliefs, my conviction gives me two broad ways to act.
Go on, I said.
I could want to achieve the most good for most people. I would then ask myself – what are the overall future effects of my action? Who are the people who will be impacted? My ethical decision will be to act for the best outcomes for most of the people.
Fair enough, I agreed.
Or I could be the leader to whom acting in the right manner is most important. What is the right thing to do, I will ask myself. What are the actions I never should take? This will be my lodestar for ethical decisiveness.
But intent is only half the story, isn’t it, I nudged. When you take decisions for others shouldn’t you smartly factor the impact of outcomes?
That’s where it gets muddled, he rued. I agreed with him.
Of course, there never will be a perfect decision. Even your most cynical critics will concede that. A good leader like you will be smart and intelligent to foresee all the implications of your decision – upside and downside. And I am sure you will also have plans to tackle the fallout in each case.
But what about the dangers of perception, he quizzed.
You cannot get away from that reality, I said. And integrity is your best shield here. Can you transparently maneuver the truth without manipulating it? Can you own your decision with conviction and without the arrogance of authority? Can you open some windows of hopeful change for those who see your decisions as closing doors for them? And can you live with the pain of not being liked by everyone – without hurt, rancor or derision?
His furrowed brows had straightened quite a bit as he set out on his next decision. I know he will be back again to look into me as his mirror. And I went back to my work of polishing it for clearer reflection.