Ethical Dilemma: “Right versus Right”​

While “right versus wrong” are easy decisions to take, it is the “right versus right” that are always a challenge for any leadership.

Some three decades ago when I was teaching a course as a visiting faculty for a part-time Management program, one close to midnight phone call woke all of us at home (given that there were no mobiles then, and landlines could not be put on silent mode!). When I answered the call, I was rather surprised about the caller and his pleading request. He was one of my students and had just seen the corrected final examination paper that evening and found that he was short by one mark to achieve an overall pass for the program – because he scored very low in two other subjects other than what I taught. His feverous appeal was that I consider adding just one more mark after reviewing the paper and that will enable him scrape through – else he may have to repeat a whole year! I asked why he had not approached the other teachers – he said he did, but they bluntly refused to oblige!

I found myself in an awkward dilemma – a spontaneous response would not have been fair – so I bought time for one day and said let me first consult the examination section and see if anything like this is possible and done in the past. Obviously, I was conscious of the fact that I must not land put setting a wrong precedence. When I checked – I got vague responses – all of them leading to saying that it was ultimately up to me as to what I choose to do!

I pondered – if I stuck to my original marks (like my other colleagues did for their respective subjects) then this person would have to repeat a year. I was not sure if he was company sponsored or spent his own savings and if this event will hamper his promotion?! If I just took a more magnanimous stand then this individual would thank me for life (I would of course lecture him as to why he needs to considerably improve at his workplace if needs to grow in his career, etc. and such lax attitude will not take him too far).

Eventually, I did review the paper and graciously gave that one saving grace mark and of course a much longer and stronger lecture than what I had originally planned! Thankfully, some years later when he met me, I was pleased to learn that he was with the same firm, earned a managerial position for himself, and doing decently well. Some ‘unburdening’ of guilt, I thought!

This was a classical “right versus right” decision. It would have been completely “right” for me to not budge at all, and stick to the marks that I had originally given. Also strangely, it would have been equally “right” on my part if I took a broader view of the context and impact on the future of the individual and if it was helping the larger cause – which is what I had eventually chosen to do.

In every sphere of our personal and professional lives we are often faced with the ethical dilemma of taking decisions where there is a “right versus right” situation. With top leaderships in business, politics, academia, and start-up founders – almost everywhere – this is indeed a tough one to handle. Making choices for people who work for you, your customers, suppliers, angels and VCs, and indeed all stakeholders is very hard on the Leadership. Therefore, often times despite all the competencies that a leader may possess, s/he finds herself/himself very lonely at the top.

At another point in time as a part-time academician, I was intimately involved in a debate on whether we ought to be formally teaching “Business Ethics” to aspiring entrepreneurs. Several of my colleagues felt very strongly that it is a difficult subject to do justice – because in the eyes of the participants, the teacher/facilitator ought to perceived highly ethical herself/himself! Others suggested that while we could expose them with the principles, it may be hard to put into practice in the real world. One entrepreneur commented “in this country just like oxygen, we breathe corruption!……businessmen just don’t have a choice but to just deal with such situations and move on…..”

I thought hard and chose to go ahead – with the hope that we will have some examples to cite from both; old and new generation companies where the leadership has often demonstrated making the hard choices in “right versus right” situations. Although not many, but we actually found some cases/narratives and anecdotal evidences.

I felt that even if it not possible every time, if the intent of the top leadership is pursued sincerely and by setting the right examples at the right time, it is likely to yield results. Also, one must remember that not all individuals in position of power are corrupt (and there may be equal or more corruption in private sector than as perceived in the Government!– which is unnoticed and rarely talked about).

Once you are perceived to be a no-nonsense and clean individual willing to make sacrifices but not fall prey to the wrong, then people are generally smart enough to recognize that they better not fiddle around with you. If you happen to be the Founder or part of the top leadership team, then that perception is equated with your organization too.

This aspect is very relevant to young start-ups who are in the process of defining their enterprise values and culture. If they choose to take decisions in the overall good of the organization and the various stakeholders, then the “right versus right” decisions are less difficult to make. But it has to be engrained in every member of staff of the venture – it is not only the onus of the Leadership – although the Leadership must demonstrate and lead by exemplary examples. And it better be done sooner rather than later!

K. Thyagrajan

Founding Team Member and Board Director – iCreate

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