The recent case of a contractor in the National Security Agency choosing to leak information on the agency’s data gathering program resurrects the dilemma of how we tackle the conflict between what we perceive is right and whether believing we are morally right gives us the license to break the law. It once again reveals the truth that there are far more hues of gray than we can be comfortable with when we encounter such situations.
While questions of right, wrong, treason, security will rock the headlines in this specific case, let us take this to a scenario in our everyday work-life. What would you and I do if we were faced with a situation where we had to do something that clashed with our beliefs and principles?
Would I keep silent because I believe the organization is entitled to do what it thinks best, or because I do not want to rock a comfortable boat? Or would I move to the other extreme of blind crusading to hurt and mow both the trees and the weeds? Or would I take the role of an influencer firm in my intent to make a change – knowing fully well that I may succeed or not in the entirety of the outcome, but can shape the thinking of my colleagues, peers and powers-that-be to what is right?
This is how the needle moves from making the issue bigger than the individual. While the origin of our action arises out of our personal belief, its clarity should not be muddled by a self-righteous ego on one end to helpless cowardice on the other. The first questions we need to ask ourselves are – do my principles resonate with a general “good-for-all” motive? Can I open my thinking to organizational perspectives that conflict with what I think is right – do they warrant merit too?
The distillate of such fractionalization of thoughts (pardon me going back to my chemistry days!) will then be clearer to show how you can link your personal principles to your organization’s bigger social responsibility. And then it is not a conflict of which matters more, but a solution-finding exercise of how we can marry the two. You go past the nonchalant “why should I care”, the rabid “let me show them” or the apathetic “whatever” to a more satisfying “what can we do together”.
Whether or not the motives of the NSA contractor were malicious, a couple of his statements struck me.
“…There are many other secrets I could have revealed if I wanted to harm national security, but that was not my aim”
“…My intention was to disclose those details that could spark a national debate..”
“..the greatest fear I have regarding the outcome…is that nothing will change”
Taken at face value, they pose good learning points for many of us who grapple with right and wrong, acceptability and the non- of it.
Lesson#1 – A negative outcome as a goal is a very bad idea, and shows the hollowness of our beliefs.
Lesson#2 – As long as I restrict my principles to how I act and what I do, it is fine. But when I wish to paint it on a wider canvas, inclusiveness of thought and deed, of cause and effect is vital.
Lesson#3, and this is the most important – it is not about whether I fail or succeed. From the end result point of view, my first steps may land me in a puddle or a ditch, and I may slither the slopes awfully – but if I can maintain my integrity and get up again to attempt it with greater wisdom, greater intelligence and greater conviction – and lesser anger, lesser frustration and lesser negativity – that is what matters.
Ultimately, it is about feeling proud that I dared to believe…and I dared further to humble myself to ask, to gather, and pass the baton on to others who are more capable of crossing the finish line.