Little White Lies

On Saturday I spent half a day with 100 resident advisers and resident directors at Grove City College, a Christian college located in western Pennsylvania. I work with this group each year as part of their leadership development program, offering stories and some teaching to encourage their growth and development in leadership (and life).


As I have written on this subject before, it strikes me as borderline unconscionable that our education system, from high school through college and into graduate school, aspires to produce top performers in various professions but does not prepare their students for the guaranteed result, namely, that graduates who distinguish themselves in their chosen profession will be promoted to leadership. And leadership is not what the school prepared them to know how to do.

You can read a bit more on this, if you like, in prior blogs such as THIS .

On Saturday, I focused half of my teaching time on the character requirements of leadership, and administered a little tool I developed several years ago called a “Personal Integrity Assessment.” Feel free to ask me about getting a copy of that. I will be glad to arrange a way to distribute it without charge.

I was struck, speaking to these bright and deeply committed senior classmen, by how mystifying integrity and ethics can be for us mere mortals as we venture into our lives and work. Two of these challenges are nearly always voiced when I help leaders get clearer on the imperative on integrity, and when I help them get stronger in their ethical constitution.

  1. We don’t know how to grow our personal ethicalness. I have heard is said many times that a person discovers what kind of ethical man or ethical woman they are in a moment of great crisis. This is fair enough, as great tests reveal a lot about us. In many situations, though, our moral fiber and ethical constitution does not get hard pressed under scrutiny, which causes us to think that we aren’t actually building our character in life’s ordinary events. A big challenge reveals what is there, to be sure.But it would be a terrific mistake to conclude that big ethical challenges create our ethical constitution. The opposite is the case, in fact. Our integrity, our virtue, our ethics – our character – are built up over time, small piece by small piece. We can grow our integrity with tremendous intentionality in ordinary day-to-day activities because our actual growth process depends upon everyday occurrences that we can learn to notice, reflect upon, and improve. The Personal Integrity Assessment works at these “fine motor skills” of human character, tuning and shaping a person’s conscientiousness in small things. When we are faithful in small things, we become prepared for faithfulness in larger things. There are no “little” white lies.
  2. We have what one might call “perverse norms” – things we believe but which just aren’t true (I call these things “ungodly beliefs”). A perverse norm that many adhere to is that doing the right thing is not always the most “responsible act.” I will not drag us into a philosophical conversation here, but there is a broad train of thought, even held by highly respected people, that being responsible and grown up requires a person, from time to time, to violate one’s code of ethics (regrettably, to be sure, but quite necessarily in any event). Given the fact that this philosophical train of thought is pervasive, questions always come up like this one; “In this case story the super star doctor was fired after months of being unsuccessfully coached by the CEO because of his violation of the hospital’s value of “Respect,” for coworkers. While it’s true that the doctor disrespected, belittled and demeaned the nurses and support staff of the hospital, and that this was a clear violation of the hospital’s values, what if firing that doctor had led to the hospital losing money because of the doctor’s fame, and what if the hospital losing money would have led to the hospital closing its doors? Isn’t there a greater good in accepting ethical violations if taking a stand for your ethics destroys the company or denies patients the health care they need?”I have heard a version of this question many, many times. It is said that there is only one reason to do the right thing, and that reason is that it is the right thing to do. This is incontrovertibly true. When we decide to calculate the results of our ethical choices verses our unethical choices, we move to a land of quicksand, high speculation, and impossible calculation. Who’s to know what will happen after we do the thing that we do? And given our penchant for the easy path and the self-serving path, we should be absolutely dubious of any clever calculation about whether, in this instance, we should or should not do what is right.

Subject for another time, the data from a world of leadership and decision-making is fantastically in favor of integrity. True enough, when we “do the right thing,” the results are not always what we want them to be. More often then not, though, doing the right thing is just plain smart.

Regardless, when it comes to ethical decision-making and given how little we understand and can predict, there is only one policy to live by. Do the right thing. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.

Our world is in desperate need of men and women who devote themselves to virtue, to morality, and to the tuning of their ethical compass! Our world is crying out for people who display the moral courage to do what’s right because it’s right. Of course, in a day of increasing moral relativism, everything I wrote in the paragraphs above is pure nonsense. Relativists grin at the idea that there is even a right thing that can be declared to be “right.” But you who are reading this are, I’m entirely confident, not of that particular crowd.


Photo by Toni Kellar


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