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What Price Would I Pay?

Leaders inspire greater confidence, trust and loyalty if they consistently live up to values their followers admire. But they don’t really know the strength of their commitment to important leadership values such as integrity, courage and fairness until that commitment is put to the test.

The Cost of Staying True to your Values 

Written by Joe Holt

Leaders inspire greater confidence, trust and loyalty if they consistently live up to values their followers admire.  But they don’t really know the strength of their commitment to important leadership values such as integrity, courage and fairness until that commitment is put to the test.

That’s what happened to Thomas, a Notre Dame Executive MBA graduate, who faced a dilemma that required him to decide how high a price he was willing to pay to stay true to his values – values that he believed defined him as a person and as a leader. (The names of all persons and companies in this essay have been changed to preserve anonymity).  As I recount his story, I ask you to consider: What would you do if placed in his shoes?

Thomas was a mid-level executive in his mid-30s on a promising career path at Acme Corp., a Fortune 100 company.  He had 12 direct reports.  Early in the current economic downturn it was announced that Beta Corp., a major competitor, would acquire Acme Corp., and that deep cuts in personnel would be required.  Thomas and other executives spent several weeks identifying positions that would no longer be necessary after the merger, then low-performers, and then employees near retirement who would be willing to leave earlier with a severance package. Then came the more difficult task: They had to rank their remaining direct reports, all solid performers, to determine who would be let go, and in what order, in the likely event that further cuts were demanded.

Thomas conscientiously ranked his twelve reports on the basis of clear performance criteria, direct observation, and input from their peers and clients.  He presented the list to Rob, his boss.  Rob asked him to switch the positions of Brian and Tim, numbers 5 and 6 on the list of 12, and then sign off on the change.  It was implied that only the top 5 performers on the list would retain their jobs after the merger, and it was clear that Rob was especially concerned to protect Tim.  Rob argued that Tim was a better performer than Brian, but Thomas had solid grounds for ranking them otherwise.  Thomas realized, though, that Tim had been brought on board by Rob and was a favorite of his.  He also realized that Rob liked those who were fiercely loyal to him.

Thomas had to decide whether to make and sign off on the requested change – only he had the authority to do so — and give “the final seat on the life boat” to Tim even though he believed that Brian had earned it.  He realized that his own job security might be at stake if he refused and Rob considered him disloyal.

Before you read on, take a moment to consider what you would do, keeping in mind what was at stake.  On the one hand, Thomas had solid reasons for ranking Brian ahead of Tim, and he believed that leaders should stand up for their values and for their people or lose a measure of respect for themselves and from others.  On the other hand, Tim was still a solid performer who had moved from out of state for the job at Rob’s invitation, Brian was younger and talented and would likely land on his feet eventually, and Thomas might fall out of favor with Rob or even lose his job in a down economy if he refused to acquiesce.

The threat of job loss became more real after Thomas told Rob that he would take the request under advisement but was uncomfortable with it because he had spent 3 weeks ranking his team members as fairly as he could.  Rob said in that event he “would do what he would have to do.”

So here’s what happened next:

Thomas reflected on the dilemma, prayed, and spoke about it with his wife and a former boss, both of whom he respected deeply for their moral character and judgment.  He then respectfully declined to accede to Rob’s request based on what he calls the “look back test.”  That test asks you to imagine whether you will like what you see years from now when you look back on how you handled your current dilemma.  Moving imaginatively from the present to the future provides wider perspective and diminishes the strength of immediate pressures to go against your better judgment.  When you look back will you regret your actions and wish you had acted differently?  Or will you be proud of your decisions and gain peace of mind from that, regardless of how much it cost you?

Thomas is blessed to have a wife who made his application of the look back test easier.  She pointed out that he knew what he should do and that she supported him in doing it.

Ultimately, Thomas made his decision based on his belief that leaders who deserve to be followed are willing to stand up for their beliefs; they display courage by going to bat for those who count on them as leaders, even when doing so might cost them dearly.  He liked to think of himself as that kind of leader, but would have thought less of himself had he given in to Rob’s demand out of an abundance of self-concern.

I spoke with Thomas recently, now several years after the incident.  He put his job and his family’s financial security at risk, he acknowledges, but says that he is proud of how he handled the situation and would do it the same way again.

It is easy in ethics discussions to say what we think someone should do in a hypothetical situation, but the costs Thomas was willing to pay were real.  I ask MBA students whether they would think of him as a bad person or bad leader had he given in to Rob’s demand.  Most would not.  And almost all say they would not when I add that Thomas at the time had a 3-year old son, a newborn daughter, a hefty mortgage payment, an even heftier EMBA tuition payment and a plummeting 401(k).

A large majority also say, however, that they would have more trust in and commitment to Thomas as a leader if they were were assigned to report to him after the merger, heard about this situation, and learned that Thomas had gone to bat for Brian while putting his own job at risk.  (None of Thomas’s direct reports ever heard about it from him, by the way, though a senior executive apparently assured some of them that they had a “guardian angel” watching over them).

As it turned out, Thomas and Brian kept their jobs after the merger while Rob and Tim lost theirs.  It came to light that Thomas wasn’t the only one who had been pressured inappropriately by Rob.

Thomas’s dilemma leads each of us to ponder the fundamental question of who we want to be: a good person who doesn’t wrong other people but who won’t go to bat for those who have been wronged when the personal cost might be too high, or a courageous person who will stand up for his or her beliefs and for others even at considerable personal risk.

The dilemma leaves us to consider how high a price we would be willing to pay to stay true to our values.  Just as compellingly, it leaves us to consider how high the price might be of not staying true to our values and then looking back for years to come with regret rather than with pride.

Author’s Bio:

Joe Holt is Director for Executive Ethics in the Executive Education program, and Concurrent Assistant Professor of Management, at the University of Notre Dame.  Joe received his B.A. from Boston College and spent 11 years as a Jesuit seminarian and priest.  While a Jesuit, Joe completed graduate studies in Philosophy (Fordham University), Theology (Weston School of Theology), and Biblical Theology (the Vatican’s Gregorian University in Rome).  He also taught Philosophy with a specialization in Business Ethics at Canisius College, Boston College, and Loyola University Chicago’s Rome Center.


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