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Business Ethics: Is Character Relevant to Leadership?



TOPIC: Ethics
Expediency



T he staggering breakdown in trust at the beginning of this century, resulting from the lack of character of some leaders in corporate America should cause less finger-pointing and more serious introspection. These leaders are not from outer space, here to impose some alien standard of conduct, but came from among us and as such, reflect attitudes and values that we have lazily slipped into. The tendency is to punish the “evil-doers” and move on confidently in the knowledge that the problem has been solved. Certainly there should be a punishment and one sufficient enough to give all of us pause when considering giving in to expediency, but if we are to “solve” the problem, the impetus is on us to look at ourselves and shore up our own character where we find it lacking.

It isn’t a problem of an approach that backfired because it wasn’t given enough time to run its course, it was that an approach was taken that was wrong. Betraying the trust of those you serve even for what is considered to be a desirable end sought by all parties involved, can only hurt everyone connected to the expedient course of action taken.

The expedient course is rarely the best course and in the end it taints us. As English poet Robert Southey noted, “Never let a man imagine that he can pursue a good end by evil means, without sinning against his own soul. The evil effect on himself is certain.”

In a less stable world, a leader will rely more on inner resources than on the shifting sands of social convention. If those inner resources are not built on a solid foundation then that leader will only contribute to the problem rather than stand as a guiding beacon and provide the direction we need.

Certainly, the underlying reason for business is to make a profit, but if it can’t be made honestly, then it can’t be made. Expediency may lead to short-term gain but long term success can only come from a commitment to doing what is right even when that course of action may not seem to be in our short-term best interest. The 19th century U. S. Navy oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury rightly exhorted us that “where principle is involved, be deaf to expediency.”

Failure to examine these issues in our own lives will create a pool of leaders destined to leadership now commit the same mistakes.