The Struggle Of Doing The Right Thing

Looking good is not better than doing good. Become a leader who does the right thing regardless of popularity.
President & CEO, The Enterprise Group
August 26, 2011

Few people would disagree with this as a mantra: do the right thing. In fact, most people would try to “do the right thing,” most of the time. Surprisingly, that is not the hardest part of what to do.

The hardest part was stated eloquently by Ben Kingsley in a fine movie entitled “The Confession.” Kingsley said, “It’s not hard to do the right thing; in fact it’s easy. What’s hard is knowing what the right thing to do is. Once you know that, and believe it, doing the right thing is easy.”

This was an emotionally powerful movie about the death of Kingsley’s child, in his arms, while waiting interminably in multiple hospital ERs for treatment, and how he struggled to deal with this enormous loss. Hopefully, most of us will not have to face a life or death decision—but sometimes we do. That is when we must struggle to know what the right thing to do is…so we can do it.

At work and at home we face a multitude of decisions every day. Some are easy; some are hard. At times, there is no “good” or “ideal” decision—just the better of two that are either painful, or wrong. Our government leaders face this kind of dilemma regularly. They are forced to vote for bills they don’t like because they are “less wrong” than the alternative—which is a different vote—or no vote at all.

Leaders face this dilemma frequently, because in the imperfect real world, there are a lot of not-so-good choices, and few really good, clear and right ones. But leaders must decide. That is their job. In fact, they are evaluated by how well they decide, by their bosses, by their peers and especially by their subordinates (or by their loved ones and family).

True leaders will not do the “wrong thing” just to be liked. Leaders must make the best available, “right” decision, and if they do, even when it is unpopular, they will at least be respected for being a person of principle.

We have created an entire generation of people in this country, many of them who have moved into high level leadership positions based on doing what “looked good,” instead of doing what was right and best, and undeniably, toughest to do.

Looking good is not better than doing good. Stephen Covey wrote of this two decades ago, when he described “personality-based leaders,” who were preoccupied with “looking good” (in hopes of being liked) instead of “doing good.” These true leaders, he described as “principle-based leaders.” These leaders struggled to “know the right thing to do,” but then had the courage and integrity to “do the right thing”—even if it was unpopular at the time.

Principle-based leaders earn lasting respect from all constituencies. Personality-based leaders look good, talk a good game and make the carefully crafted “popular” decisions—whether they are right or wrong. In fact, many times the popular decision is the right one too, so they rise in the world in both business and politics.

But when times are tough, and there is no “easy decision,” personality-based leaders flounder; the flop around parsing their statements, to straddle the various decisions, while trying to see what will make them look good.

Principle-based leaders struggle with the dilemma Ben Kingsley voiced in that movie. They struggle to figure out the “right thing to do;” and then they do it. This kind of leader is shown to have three characteristics that stand out: courage, character, and competence. It is these three characteristics that help them; that enable them; and that guide them in making the tough choices.

As for everyone else, they have a decision about which kind of leader they want to follow, to vote for and elect, to support. Do you want the narcissist who always looks good, but cleverly avoids the tough decisions, (or make the wrong ones)? Or would you rather have a leader who struggles mightily evaluating what the “right thing to do” is, and then does it, no matter how difficult, how painful or how unpopular it might be.

I’ve seen and known both kinds. I can pick them out to this day—good and bad. I know which kind I want to follow. How about you?

President & CEO, The Enterprise Group