Triple Crown Leadership

Triple Crown Leadership

Ethical Decision-Making: Simple Tests

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the decision

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When it comes to ethical challenges, we are all tested at some point. Leaders are tested most when they are under duress.

Many leaders are ill-equipped to navigate the ethical minefields awaiting them in the swirl of fast-changing competitive markets and new technologies.

Drawing insights from terrific books like Ethics (for the Real World), by Ronald Howard and Clinton Korver, and Courage: The Backbone of Leadership, by Gus Lee with Diane Elliott-Lee, here are some examples of simple tests that leaders can take before making ethical decisions: 

Mirror Test. Imagine making the decision and then look at yourself in the mirror. How do you feel? What do you see in your eyes? Does it trigger alarm bells, violate your principles, or summon a guilty conscience?

Front Page Test. Imagine reading about the decision in the headlines, with your name and photo prominently displayed. How would you look and feel, and what effect would it have on your reputation, relationships, and business prospects?

Consequences Test. The consequences of unethical decisions can be severe, so it is wise to consider them in advance. Think not only of the potential monetary costs associated with certain causes of action but also the reputational costs (brand equity), relationship costs, and psychological costs (the burden of regret).

Reciprocity Test. Imagine being on the receiving end of your possible action: how would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot (and you were getting kicked)? Would you be violating the golden rule?

Universality Test. Drawing on the thinking of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, imagine if your course of action were to become standard practice for all people in all times (a universal maxim). Would that be a good and just outcome?

Role Model Test. Given the choice before you, what would your role model (or someone you admire, such as a parent, sibling, friend, mentor, or coach) say or do? Have you asked him or her?

Loved One Test. This can work in two ways: First, similar to the role model test above, what would your mother or father—or grandmother or grandfather—say or do about this? Second, imagine your son or daughter (or other precious loved one, such as a spouse, close relative, or best friend) in this situation and think through what you would want to have happen.  

Advisory Group Test. Do you have an advisory group, a men’s or women’s group, a “personal board of directors,” or other group of people you can run this by to gather input and explore options? If not, why not start one? Or reach out to people you trust in this instance. Often, they have valuable experience or insights.

Sanctuary Test. Finally, have you given it time for reflection? Have you slept on it? Have you prayed about it, or meditated, or otherwise found sanctuary to let your inner voice emerge?

When leaders face intense pressures or ethical dilemmas, pausing to take one or more simple tests can make an enormous difference—especially if this ethical pressure-testing also includes:

  • clarifying the ethical issue and its root causes
  • creatively exploring possible alternatives
  • evaluating the choices with input from trusted advisors and the screen of your personal values and core beliefs

In the working world, we have robust processes for strategizing, financial modeling, onboarding, and more. It’s time we beefed up our ethical decision-making muscles too.

Reflection Questions:

  • What processes do you use to make ethical decisions?
  • Who do you turn to for guidance on tough issues?

P.S. – Check out our “Leadership Bookshelf” —our recommended books on leadership (including a section on leadership and ethics).

Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, winner of the 2013 International Book Awards (Business: General). Twitter: @TripleCrownLead


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2 thoughts on “Ethical Decision-Making: Simple Tests

  1. A great list of tests, Bob and Gregg. I especially like the reciprocity, universality, and loved one tests. Excellent hurdles to jump before you take action. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Dan. That means a lot coming from you, and thanks for your great work at the Institute for Enterprise Ethics and the University of Denver.

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