How good people make tough choices

One of my favorite books on ethics is How Good People Make Tough Choices, by Rushworth Kidder.  In it, he discusses the difficulty of deciding between two answers when both are right.

“When good people encounter tough choices, it is rarely because they’re facing a moral temptation. Only those living in a moral vacuum will be able to say, “On the one hand is the good, the right, the true, and noble. On the other hand is the awful, the wicked, the false, and the base. And here I stand, equally attracted to each.” (p. 17)

Rather, Kidder says that the really tough choices are between alternatives that are equally right and good. For example, how do you choose between the individual and the community, or between justice and mercy?  As a supervisor, how do you choose between consistency on the one hand, and respect for individual differences on the other?  If you’ve attended our workshops on managing polarities, then you’re familiar with this concept.

Kidder makes a convincing case for the importance of what he calls “ethical fitness” for helping leaders to manage these dilemmas. This includes:

  • the ability to recognize moral challenges and respond from an active conscience,
  • a “lively perception” of the difference between right and wrong, and
  • the ability to make right choices and live by them.

Ethical fitness enables us to implement February’s leadership competency, acting with integrity.  Like any other form of fitness, it requires exercise.  It’s not a goal to be achieved and marked off the checklist, it’s an ongoing process.

For me, ethical fitness requires understanding my personal values and being intentional about acting them out in the workplace.  I can choose to demonstrate respect when responding to the employee who misses a key deadline – for the third time in a month.  I can reflect on the example of a leader who expresses dissenting opinions in a constructive way.  I can listen and learn when someone gives me feedback about times when I fall short.  These activities help me exercise my integrity so that it is in shape when it’s needed to resolve a difficult dilemma.

What do you do to enhance your ethical fitness?

Dee Anne Bonebright


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