Doing the Right Thing

by Desmond Berghofer

It is a well known dictum in the executive world that leaders are the people who do the right thing and managers are the ones who do things right. The expression gets its power from the shades of meaning the word "right" has in the English language. To do "the right thing" means to make a choice among possibilities in favour of something the collective wisdom of humanity knows to be the way to act. To "do things right" carries the meaning of efficiency, effectiveness, expertise and the like. This does not mean leaders are inefficient or lack expertise, nor that managers know nothing about the big picture. It is simply a way of highlighting that a leader must call upon a broad band of intuitive knowledge and use it to give guidance and direction.

Two things are critical here. The first is we believe that somehow out of all the myriad of possibilities in a complex world there is something we can call "right action" in a given situation.

The second is we believe someone, namely, the leader, will be able to find "the right thing" and choose to do it, no matter what. Both of these beliefs say much about why human affairs sometimes go so well, and why at other times they go very badly.

If a person comes to a position of power as a leader in an organization or in society without knowing how to do the right thing, then the people under his or her influence are in for a bad time. At worst they will find themselves plunged into brutal conflict with outside forces, or at best they will spend a lot of time and energy struggling with internal disharmony and damage control.

That these kinds of mismatches and consequences occur all too frequently in human affairs should suggest to us we are doing something wrong. The simplistic answer is that we should select, appoint or elect better leaders. True, but the problem is we don't know how to do that, and, moreover, we tend to inherit many of our leaders through rights of birth, ownership, seniority, prestige, wealth, etc.

The more thoughtful approach to helping with our problem of ineffective leadership is to look to the basic assumption from which the problem comes. It is the first of the two beliefs mentioned above: that "right action" in a given situation is knowable. If we believe that, then we should examine the issue of how right action is knowable, rather than jump quickly to the second belief that there is a leader somewhere out there who will know what the right action is and do it for us. It is in handing off the responsibility for "doing the right thing" from ourselves to someone else that we get into trouble.

The reason we believe right action is knowable is that our human traditions are full of stories which tell us this is so. From the Judeo-Christian pronouncements of the Ten Commandments and their equivalent in other spiritual traditions, to the simple stories telling of good deeds, brave sacrifice, honest dealing, of our children's literature, we are brought up "knowing" there are right ways and wrong ways to act. If we widen the net to include stories from the political, military and business arenas, then we also know about how particular moves were made down through history that resulted in some notable achievement. Sometimes luck was involved, but always somewhere in the story a prepared mind knew how to "do the right thing."

And therein lies the clue to what is missing from our current efforts to promote right action in our society. We are not doing sufficient to prepare enough minds to know what right action is. A leader is not able to lead effectively if the people he or she is leading have not themselves learnt the lessons of right action. True, part of the role of the leader is to be a teacher and model of right action, but if the minds of the people are clouded by preoccupation with self-interest, the leader is more likely to be sacrificed than respected and followed.

What this brings us back to is the understanding that the quality and act of leadership must be distributed throughout society. We are each of us leaders in our own spheres of influence. What kind of leader we will be is determined by the quality of our leadership mind. Foremost among the attributes of that mind is the ability to know what is the "right thing" to do. If enough of us know that and practice it under the mentorship and guidance of those who choose to come forward into larger offices of leadership, then it is likely we will have a successful and just and decent society. If not, then we don't have much to look forward to.

All of this reinforces the point that ethics lie at the core of a successful society or organization, and that ethical leadership is one of our greatest continuing needs. It is no coincidence we say a leader is one who does "the right thing." We have seen all too frequently this century the misery and carnage which flow in the wake of unethical leadership. We are seeing today the moral fibre in our own peace-loving society warped and weakened by leaders in high places who do not do the right thing. But sadly they are to a large degree poor products of our own inadequate efforts to place ethical teaching at the centre point of who we are and what we stand for. Self-serving materialism has led us to treat each other and our beautiful planet and its wondrous life forms as objects to be exploited rather than as the living tissue of our own being. In our impassioned pursuit of technology and technique we have forgotten that life comes first.

So there is much to do to reshape the way we live together with right action at the core. There is important work to be done by an Institute for Ethical Leadership. We must find new ways of retelling the old stories of decency, love, cooperation and support. New heroes who create new myths of stewardship and service must displace the old warrior image and the screen idols who indulge their lives of violence and conquest in adventures on the dark side of humanity. We must let in the light in a hundred thousand ways to show how we can walk together into the future and know at every step we are trying hard to do the right thing.