How to Make Good Leadership Decisions to Make Good Leadership Decisions

How can leaders make so many bone-headed decisions?

Leaders need an easy-to-use, bulletproof test for their decision-making. We offer one here.

Bob recently attended sessions at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, where Stanford Professor Joseph Grundfest led some fascinating dialogue. We extrapolated the model that follows from that interaction. It is simple, memorable, and powerful:

1. Is it legal?
2. Is it ethical?
3. Is it smart?


1. Is It Legal?

The minimum threshold for all decisions is “Is it legal?” Too many leaders rationalize illegal behavior:

  • “The chances of getting caught are so small.”
  • “I’m smart enough to get away with it.”
  • “Everybody’s doing it.”
  • “I deserve it.”
  • “It really isn’t hurting anybody.”

Of course, if you’re caught, you’ll wonder later how you could have been so blind.


2. Is It Ethical?

The general views of a civilized society (called the mores) are what determine if something is ethical.

Some acts are ethical, even if they are illegal (e.g., civil disobedience to challenge discriminatory laws). To break such a law may be ethically right, but one must be prepared to face the legal consequences.

Some acts are unethical, even if they are legal (e.g., the laws of the Third Reich).

We encourage organizations to articulate a set of shared values to guide their behavior–shared values like integrity (or one of its synonyms). But even with a set of such shared values, collaboratively developed, widely communicated, and embedded into the DNA of an organization, men and women of goodwill may disagree on the ethics of a certain course of action.

As Grundfest queried,

“What if you discover some information in a perfectly legal manner that gives you a huge competitive insight into a company’s proposed actions, information that no one else possesses and might make you a lot of money? Is it ethical to use this information that others don’t have, taking advantage of their naiveté?”

Some might say, “That’s business.” Others might say, “I’m not so sure.”

Leadership Derailers Assessment

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3. Is It Smart?

So, let’s then ask, “Is it smart for all concerned?” This parameter is similar to the old adage of “What if were on the front page of the newspaper?”

In an era of whistleblowers, Wikileaks, and social media, assume your actions will become public. How will your behavior stand up to that scrutiny?

Test your decisions against these three parameters. You won’t regret it.


Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Articles


Resources on Decision-Making

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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! to Make Good Leadership Decisions

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