Category Archives: values

When Loyalty and Personal Integrity Pull Us in Opposite Directions

When staying loyal to our group conflicts with our deepest-held values, what should we do?


People are still reeling in disbelief over the improbable rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Presidential nominee. Many registered Republicans, party leaders and individual voters alike, are faced with a stark and excruciating choice – fall in line and support Trump or break ranks.

Some party leaders, like John McCain and Paul Ryan, have decided to support Trump despite their public statements about him being the antithesis of much of what they hold most dear. Are they to be lauded for being loyal to their party, or criticized for being hypocritical sell-outs?

Others like George H. W. Bush and Lindsay Graham refuse to support someone whose values, character and policy proposals are so at odds with their own. Should they be shunned for being disloyal or praised for being models of integrity?

We All Have our own Trump-like Dilemmas, Don’t We?

While the stakes are obviously much higher in a Presidential election, we’ve all had times when we’ve faced similar types of wicked problems as individuals and as organizations.

  • Have you ever felt that your job required you compromise on your personal values in order to be a “good team player” or to maximize your compensation or chances of promotion?
  • Has your company experienced tension between its commitment to social and environmental responsibility, improving short-term profits, or responding to competitive or market pressures? In weighing the trade-offs associated with different choices, which interests were given most weight?

Looking Through 3 Moral Lenses

Whether we are conscious of it or not, when facing such dilemmas we typically navigate our way through them using one or more of the following moral lenses. While there are merits to each, their ultimate value depends on how they are put into practice. Each has potential pitfalls that Buddhists refer to as near enemies, which are qualities that can masquerade as the original, but are actually unhelpful imposters that act as facades for hidden motives or distorted reasoning.

  1. Consequenceswhat determines the right course to take is based on what will most likely happen if we act or fail to act in a certain way. If the end result will be good for ourselves, our organization or our larger circle of stakeholders, then we use consequentialist reasoning to justify a less than purist adherence to our individual or shared values.  This pragmatic idealist path is based on a belief that the ends justify the means. Since companies (and countries) are complex systems that are nested within larger interdependent complex systems, however, predicting all of the outcomes associated with one decision is impossible. The relationship between cause and effect is non-linear, so we can only really deal within the realm of probabilities while acknowledging that unintended consequences are inevitable. Predicted consequences that are self-serving are often based on confirmation bias and other forms of self-delusion.
  1. Doing what is rightwe all adhere to a set of norms that fosters the type of group cohesion necessary to work together toward common goals. Making choices out of sense of duty to our co-workers, company or a larger purpose strengthens the bonds of trust and dedication that has helped to fuel human progress and win wars.  This deontological approach is often based on the assumption that our group and it belief system is inherently good (even with its flaws), and that competing groups or philosophies are inherently inferior so must be beaten using any means necessary.  The incentives to conform to group norms and rules can serve to disempower us as individuals, stunting the development of critical thinking skills and the capacity for discernment.

“Being able to exercise discretion enables one to develop practical wisdom. Rules and incentives crowd it out.”Barry Schwarz, Practical Wisdom

3.  Virtue ethicsAristotle held personal virtue to be the keystone to the perfection of one’s character, and as the only practical road to effective action. Virtue was viewed as an end in itself. The Stoics believed that since we have no control over the outcome of events, we should concern ourselves with what we can control – our own thoughts, words and deeds. By making a habit of cultivating the four virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and moderation we strengthen our character and develop a stable sense of tranquility that can’t be disturbed by things outside of our control.  Common near enemies of this approach are self-righteousness or aloofness.

“It is essential to grasp a distinction here between acceptance and resignation:  using your powers of reason to stop being disturbed by a situation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change it.” – Oliver Burkeman from “The Antidote”

At this point it may be tempting to decide which of the three is the best approach for every dilemma. But what if there is no best way? Or at least not one that applies in every situation.

Using Tension as Crucible

Think of a wicked problem at work that you or your company faced and dealt with in the past. Which of the above 3 lenses most informed the ultimate course of action? What was the outcome? By looking at the other two, would the decisions and outcomes have been different?

Now think of a current wicked problem, and consider it from all 3 perspectives:

  • What course of action will result in the highest good for all concerned? Is all relevant information being objectively considered? Have all stakeholders and their interests been properly accounted for?
  • What decision most reflects and reinforces the espoused values and norms of your company or profession? Will staying true to these hinder your ability to reach your goals?
  • What is your role and degree of influence? What decision most reflects your personal values? To what degree are these at odds with your company’s culture or policies?

It’s tempting to resort to one of the above as a tension-free default mode. But by avoiding the tension that arises from ambiguity on a consistent basis, larger tensions will inevitably build and cause greater and more complex problems down the road.

A pot in which metals or other substances are heated at very high temperatures is called a crucible. It’s also a fitting metaphor for facing a difficult test or challenge. By dealing with problems using all three lenses, we turn up the heat in ways that melt the illusion of certainty and control. For most of us, this is really uncomfortable. But by staying with it with a clear and strong intention, the chances of finding a pragmatic course between the extremes of selling out and self-righteous idealism become possible.


“The Earth and Its Poor Cry Out” – The Imperative for Business Leaders to Act

The enthusiastic crowds that greeted Pope Francis during his visit to the U. S. last week demonstrate how his influence extends beyond the realms of Catholicism and religion itself. His message of caring for our common home by cultivating an integral ecology founded on morality and compassion is meant for each of us – especiallyContinue Reading

How Incentives Can Undermine Sustainability Values

By reinforcing self-interest, even the best-intentioned financial incentives can hinder the cultivation of pro-social values that guide sustainable business transformation.  More effective is a full spectrum approach that addresses the needs and values of the whole person. In theory, it makes perfect sense. If you want to motivate people to produce more of something, simplyContinue Reading

Want To Accelerate Change? Get Personal

Relying on reason alone to drive organizational change is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. We had done everything right…. or so we thought. We had brought together top-notch talent and the latest technology. We had included all stakeholders in every phase of development, and provided extensive training and ongoing technical supportContinue Reading

The Wisdom of Sustainability

All intelligent leaders possess three basic skills, but wise leaders harness them for the common good. In the course of studying intelligence and wisdom during his long and distinguished career as a psychologist, Robert J. Sternberg discovered that all effective leaders have high levels of:  Creative ability – developing novel ideas and approaches Analytical abilityContinue Reading

Finger Pointing at the Moon – The Single bottom-line and GDP

“The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.” This quote from Simon Kuznets, one of the originators of the GDP, can also be applied to individual companies as microcosms of the overall economy. What is the purpose of your company?  To maximize shareholder value?  Or is it somethingContinue Reading

3 New Year’s Resolutions for a Tempered Radical

Tempered radicals are change agents who want to work within the existing system without selling out. Their personal values are often at odds with those of the dominant culture, so they feel a tension between staying true to their selves while living outwardly conventional lives.  Rather than ignoring or turning away from this tension throughContinue Reading

Provisional Sustainability – A Double-edged Sword?

During a recent panel on Economic Sustainability one of the panelists remarked that “this is not about morality – it’s about business.”  When he said the word morality it was with a tone that implied flighty sentimentalism that has no place in the real world – especially in a corporate boardroom.  He stressed the wordContinue Reading

Why Board Skepticism Needs to Extend Beyond Financial Statements

The cover feature of NACD Directorship magazine is on “Honing Skepticism – Trust, but verify is the skeptics mantra.  Why professional skepticism is one of the most important skills for directors – and how to develop a questioning mind-set.” The article’s focus is primarily centered on the economic aspect – avoiding financial statement fraud. AndContinue Reading

How high (or low) does Amgen’s Board set the bar on ethics?

Amgen, the world’s largest biotechnology firm, recently pled guilty to fraud agreeing to pay $762 million in criminal and civil penalties.  On its web site, Amgen displays its mission and values, which includes “be ethical.”  I think it’s fair to say that Amgen’s board believes that breaking the law is clearly unethical, but how highContinue Reading