Hey friends! Welcome to the Three By Five Leadership podcast where we champion intentional leaders who create significant impacts. In this show, we seek to share simple, practical strategies to help you live, to lead, and to learn more intentionally. You can learn more about us and explore all of our resources to help you become a more intentional leader by going to our website at www.3x5leadership.com, or check out the link in the show notes.
I’m JJ Morgan, a member of the 3x5 Leadership team. Thanks for joining us for our 10th episode – over the first 9 episodes, we’ve hit almost 2000 downloads! We are grateful for your time and willingness to join us in pursuit of intentional and impactful leadership.
In episode six, we discussed a leader's responsibility as a decision-maker. We explored two models – the rational decision-making model and the naturalistic decision-making model, and then provided some practical strategies to avoid decision-fatigue and ensure you can make the right decisions. One of the practical questions asked in that episode is “Is there an ethical component to this decision?” Today’s episode is a follow-up to that episode, focused on providing you with the necessary tool when you find that there IS an ethical component to a decision, so if you missed it, check out the link in the show notes! Today we will discuss a third decision-making model – the Ethical Decision-Making model. The truth is leaders have a moral imperative to lead ethically. Today’s episode will define what an “ethical decision” is, outline a framework to help us engage in ethical decision-making, and provide some practical methods to employ that framework in our leadership practice as intentional leaders. Let’s get to it!
If we have frameworks for decision-making that we can apply to various situations, we need to have a framework that we can apply specifically to ethically challenging situations. You heard me say in the intro that leaders have a moral imperative to lead ethically. What does that mean? It means that when we have the privilege and responsibility to lead others (whether at work, on a team, in the home, or another context), we are obliged to provide them with sound leadership that promotes their well-being, the viability of the team, and the communities we are part of. To provide leadership that neglects the physical, mental, or spiritual well-being of our followers, or forces them to compromise their character and deviate from pro-social norms, we are creating a moral hazard for ourselves and our followers. This is an inherently unethical application of leadership. What are some examples of this? While we can easily point to leaders who have spearheaded mass atrocities and genocide, or instances of war crimes in storied military units, we can also point to fraudulent activities by business units, or even policy decisions and implementations in local, state, and federal governing bodies. The need for leaders of character, equipped to make ethically sound decisions, is all too obvious.
Given the examples above, what is the difference between a moral decision and an ethical decision? Morality is a focus on “the higher standard,” ultimately wrestling with whether something is fundamentally and inherently right or wrong. Moral decisions explicitly relate to this context, determining and deciding whether something is right or wrong. Often, moral decisions are not “gray,” they are simply difficult because they can come at great personal or organizational cost. Individuals who resisted the Nazi regime and aided in providing refuge to European Jews, for example, exemplify this moral decision-making – doing what was clearly right, but at extreme personal cost. On the other hand, ethical decisions are often encountered when we find our moral values in conflict with each other and must apply and optimize multiple moral values in the context of our situation. Examples of ethical decisions can be seen when we consider whether to demonstrate loyalty to a colleague by “covering” for their unexcused absence or demonstrate loyalty to the organization by holding them accountable; when we decide between giving our children a consequence for knowingly engaging in wrong behavior, or deliberately giving them grace in the moment. These scenarios, and several others, are inherently difficult because they seemingly challenge us to choose one value over another. When faced with these decisions, a leader must apply a decision-making framework to ensure consistency, clarity, and character will prevail.
Before diving into our ethical decision-making framework, it is important that we address three different perspectives on ethics and how these perspectives inform decision-making. I know it’s risky to jump into philosophy, especially in a podcast, but it’s worth our time and attention as leaders. There are three approaches to ethical decisions – the virtue approach, the principle approach, and the consequence approach. Think of these three approaches as the points or corners on a triangle. The virtue approach argues that a “good person” possesses a set of qualities and virtues that serve as the standard for ethical conduct, and ethical decisions should be aligned against that standard. The challenge with solely utilizing this methodology is that individuals, and their character, are subject to change due to a variety of factors like growth and maturity, external pressures, moral decay, culture and upbringing, to name a few.
The second corner of the triangle, the principle approach, argues that there are universal ethical principles that inform our ethical choices. The shortcoming of solely focusing on ethical decisions through this lens is that it prevents the decision-maker from really wrestling with the difficulty and complexity of an ethical decision; if everything is “absolute”, then there is no need for mental engagement and reasoning – on the other hand, the attraction to this lens is that it defies the growing movement in society towards ethical relativism, where “your truth/principles are good for you, and mine are good for me,” a position that clearly leads to frustration, adversity, and confusion. The third corner of the triangle, the consequence approach, argues that the most ethical decision is the one that yields the greatest good. This uses a purely utilitarian approach. The clear challenge to this approach is that “the greatest good” may very well be in the eyes of the beholder, and absent virtues or principles, this subjectivity falls short of a truly ethical decision. With this ethical triangle, made up of the virtue approach, principle approach, and consequence approach in mind, let’s explore an ethical decision-making framework that enables us as intentional leaders to structure our thinking and decision-making.
This framework is referred to as “The 3 C’s” and is borrowed from the work of Duke University Professor for Business Ethics, Dr. Theodore Ryan. The 3 C’s framework effectively blends the merits of each of the approaches found in the ethical triangle, while balancing our specific responsibilities as leaders. Each C represents a question, or series of questions, to help us pause, reflect, and act.
The first C stands for Character or Core Values. When faced with an ethical decision, a leader should ask “What do my character and core values say about this situation? Are there actions that are clearly mis-aligned with my core values? Are there actions that clearly align with my core values?” These questions help us reflect on our authentic character and how it can and should inform our decision-making. Beyond considering our own character and core values, we must also apply these questions to our organizational core values – what do my organizations’ core values say about this situation?
The second C represents our Constituents and Commitments. Once we have identified our core values and character, we ask the question “Who are my constituents, and what impact will this have on them? What are my existing commitments, whether explicit or implicit, and how will this affect those commitments and my ability to honor them?” By considering our constituents and commitments, we place our decisions in the context of our entire complex person. It is easy to get pulled into an ethical decision and be completely immersed in the context of that decision alone; when this happens, we risk bringing only one element of ourselves to that decision, instead of recognizing that we are multi-faceted people who have constituents and commitments across multiple contexts.
The third C represents Consequences. Building on the recognition that we have multiple facets as leaders, and that we will be most effective when we bring that perspective to the table, we now ask the questions of “What are the consequences of this decision? When will those consequences be realized?”. Perhaps most importantly, we then ask the questions “Who will bear the consequences of that decision?” and “Is it right and just for me to make a decision that will force another to bear the consequences?” Our brains are wired to consider consequences all the time – it is how we survive! We avoid walking to the edge of a cliff, we don’t touch a hot stove, we look before we cross a street – all because we consider the consequences of those decisions. The challenge for a leader is to consider the consequences to others, and not just themselves, and to discern whether we have the right to make a decision that will create consequences for others.
When we apply the 3 C’s framework in its entirety, we effectively blend the best elements of the ethical triangle. We ensure authenticity as a leader by considering our character and core values; we enable ourselves to balance values in conflict by identifying the constituents and commitments that may be impacted by our decision and expanding our perspective in the moment; and we recognize that our decisions often have an impact far beyond ourselves when we carefully consider the consequences of our decisions, who will bear them, and whether that is a right and just decision for us to make.
Now that we are equipped with the 3 C’s framework for ethical decision-making, how do we put that into practice as intentional leaders who create significant impacts? I want to outline 6 helpful methods to employ the ethical decision-making framework when you are faced with a decision that has an ethical component or challenge:
One, Gather the facts – do you have all the information about the situation you can reasonably have? Are those facts valid, or are they changing in real time? It is important that we spend as much time as we reasonably can, given the context, to gather the facts. At the same time, we must recognize that we cannot be paralyzed by needing more information; leaders must have a bias for action.
Two, ID the values in conflict first - is one more or less authentic than the other? To implement the first C of the framework, what do my character/core values say about this decision, spend the time to identify the values in conflict. Remember the scenario of the co-worker with an unexcused absence? That is a conflict of your values of loyalty and truth. Specifically identifying these values helps us ensure appropriate consideration of our core values and character.
Three, Write it out – I’ve had several mentors and leaders share that a useful litmus test for anything we say and do should be “would I be ok with this being on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow?” The NYT (or any other major publication) test is useful in determining our willingness to stand by our decision or action when placed under public scrutiny; it makes tangible the idea that the Bible discussed in Luke 12:2-3 “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops.”
Four, Seek advice / insight, but do not shirk responsibility for the decision – at 3x5 Leadership we’ve discussed several times the importance of perspective. Whether you seek that perspective from a boss, legal counsel, a mentor, a spiritual leader, a spouse, or partner, invite others into your decision-making, and have the humility to genuinely listen. In doing so, it can be tempting to want to cede the responsibility for that decision away. The odds are, you don’t work in a pure democracy where the majority rules – as a leader, you own the imperative to make an ethical decision. Do not shirk that responsibility – to do so is uncaring, unkind, and unethical in its own right.
Five, Apply the other decision-making frameworks as well! In episode 6 of this podcast, we discussed two other decision-making frameworks, the naturalistic and the rational. These frameworks can be applied in conjunction with the 3 C’s framework to enable you to make better decisions as a leader.
Six, Promote values, not rules – while rules have their place, they have a tendency to make everyone turn into a closet lawyer. By promoting values, and not rules you can cut off the “well, technically” arguments that make for a slippery slope in ethical decision-making. By promoting authentic and relatable values, you can cultivate consistent thoughts, values, and actions that align with your organizations core values and drastically undermine any potential for an unethical culture.
There is no promise that making an ethical decision equals making an easy decision. In fact, many times these are inherently hard decisions to make. Rather than wringing our hands over challenging ethical decisions, let’s resolve to roll up our sleeves and apply the 3 C’s framework, giving thoughtful consideration to our character & core values, our constituents and commitments, and the consequences of our decision.
I’ll close with an excerpt from the Cadet Prayer at the US Military Academy at West Point that I learned long ago as a cadet – it rings in my head often when faced with an ethical decision, and I hope it will similarly strengthen, encourage, and equip you to lead, and decide, ethically:
“Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretense ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”
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Thanks for joining us, team. Until next time, take care and lead well!