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When Values Clash: What Are You Willing to Sacrifice for What's Right?

Five years ago, while walking down a street in DC with my wife Merissa, we saw a man in his 30s being rough with a woman in her 20s. A stroller with a crying baby, seemingly hers, was by her side. Despite 7-8 bystanders observing, no one intervened. I had to do something. I stepped in between them and tried to calm the man down. Shortly after, another man intervened and others ensured the baby was safe. As the man and woman continued to exchange insults and attempted to fight, the situation escalated when the man pulled out a knife. I froze and stepped back. Fortunately, a police car arrived shortly after and the man fled.

This experience got me thinking. What if I had been stabbed? Was the risk worth it? And how would it affect those around me, like my wife? I was willing to risk my safety for justice, until the threat intensified.

Throughout our lives, we often find ourselves asking: What is the right thing to do? But the real question is: What am I willing to sacrifice to do the right thing? It's not just about the values we hold, but how we react when these values conflict with each other - like my desire for justice clashing with my safety and that of my loved ones.

Let's discuss how fine-tuning your moral compass can help you make better decisions and exercise leadership.

🚂 Trolley Problem

Let's play a game. You are in the driver's seat of a trolley that has lost its brakes. The only functioning part is the steering wheel. You're moving quickly and see five workers on the rail ahead. Without brakes, you're certain to hit them. However, there's a side rail with only one worker on it. If you steer the trolley onto it, you will hit only one worker instead of five. What do you do? Do you turn the wheel? What are your reasons for doing so or not?

Now, what if you realize the one worker on the side rail is someone you know - perhaps your best friend? Has your decision changed? Why? No judgment here - it's a very tough decision.

Your responses to these questions will begin to reveal your moral compass. What do you believe is the right thing to do and why?

💯 Why is Your Moral Compass Important for Leadership?

This trolley problem type of moral challenge is more common in real life than you think! It's easy to uphold moral standards when the distinction between right and wrong is clear. Discussing individual values in isolation or analyzing problems from the comfort of your classroom, office, or living room with no personal risk (skin in the game) is easy. True leadership is required when dealing with moral ambiguity, uncertainty, and real consequences. When values clash! When you have to sacrifice one value to honor another more important value. If your boss is mistreating your colleague in front of you, do you intervene immediately or report to HR, possibly risking your job but upholding justice, or do you stay silent to secure your job for your family's sake?

The more leadership you exercise, the more responsibility you take, and often the more power you gain, the more complex and tough decisions you will have to make. Many of these decisions will be difficult due to moral ambiguity. And you will make mistakes! And you will regret things. But at the very least, you can thoroughly consider a decision, understanding its moral implications and what sacrifices different choices entail.

❌ Democratic Leaders Don’t Put People in “Trolley Problem” Situations

Tough moral dilemmas often arise, and we frequently find ourselves in these predicaments through no fault of our own. Consider a woman choosing between extra work hours to keep her job or time with her child, or a father deciding whether to bribe a doctor for his daughter's urgent surgery in a corrupt system, despite his law-abiding nature. Either choice results in inevitable harm.

The solution is for Democratic Leaders to prevent such situations. They should create systems, cultures, and environments that avoid putting people in impossible scenarios. This is their duty.

🪜 Practical Steps to Tune Your Moral Compass

🔹 Articulate Your Aspired Values: Take time to identify and articulate your Aspired Values - values that you believe you should uphold and aspire to. Write them down. This is the Heroic Self - the idea that you aspire towards.

🔹 Uncover Your Enacted Values: Have you ever surprised yourself? How come? We surprise ourselves when unexpectedly we honor a value that we were not aware of or maybe are not proud of. It’s not about just having Aspired Values such as fairness, courage, integrity. It’s also about hidden values such as ambition, security, recognition, pleasure, etc. The interaction and gap between our Perceived Values and Enacted Values is what you need to explore.

🔹 Explore the Gap Between Aspired & Enacted Values: Regardless of how we perceive ourselves, it's our actions that reveal our true moral compass and value system. Actions speak louder than words. Start by reflecting on a tough decision you had to make in the last year. Take 5 minutes to consider which values you honored with that decision. Which values did you prioritize? Which did you sacrifice? Did you honor any values that you don't feel proud of or aware of? Compare these values to the Aspired Values list you made. What does this tell you about yourself? What do you want to keep, and what do you want to change?

🔹 Make it a Habit: After every tough decision you make, go through this exercise to reflect on a potential gap between your Aspired and Enacted values. Reflection in action! The more you do this, the better you will understand yourself, the more control you will have over your moral compass, and what kind of values you are truly honoring.

🔹 Seek Other Perspectives: Speak with people who know you well or see you in action often, such as colleagues. Ask them what they've observed. What values do they see you upholding in your actions?

🔹 Practice Empathy: Practicing empathy enables you to see the impact of your decisions on others. And always ask yourself - who am I serving with this what I am about to do? Only myself? My family? My “tribe”? My and other communities? The more people you include in your consideration, the more moral the decision you might make. And use moral imagination - the ability to imagine how various options could play out.

📚 Book Recommendation

For those interested in deepening their understanding of ethical leadership, I highly recommend Barry Schwartz's book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. This book has amazing stories, practical examples, and tools to support your moral and leadership development.

✊ Remember, your value system determines the direction of your perception. Your moral compass will determine how you see the world!


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