Doing the right thing is so vexing because the test of doing the right thing often comes at the wrong time.
When it comes to life, business or politics, it is usually not all that difficult to understand, sense or define the right thing to do. We’ve had a lifetime to sharpen our skills and understanding of what is basically the Golden Rule.
But that’s half the battle. The tricky part is actually doing what should be done. And what makes doing the right thing so thorny is that the call to exercise our morally right and fair action never happens at the right time—when our judgment is completely unfettered by personal, family, career or political concerns, and the conflicts or fears they engender.
In the real world we are peppered and pestered time and again by personal, business or political anxieties that distort our perceptions of what is the high road because we are conflicted between two “rights,” both of which have merit. And to make matters worse, there are no clear boundaries as to which actions will ultimately prove “right” or “wrong.” Often we are faced with true dilemmas.
The real challenge facing those who seek to do the right thing is not just doing the right thing at that moment – that is called expediency, but to have the courage do the right thing for the long term – that is called principle.
Personal and political examples of this “great divide” are everywhere
The current crisis in Egypt is a prime case in point. From the early trembling birth of the “Arab Spring” movement in the Mideast, the Obama administration’s position has been that the right thing to do was to avoid taking parochial sides in the movement, but rather, to support a broad movement toward democracy no matter what direction that movement should take.
It was this “commitment to democracy” that motivated the American government to withdraw its support of the Mubarak government that was clearly undemocratic in nature. It seemed the “right thing to do,” despite the fact that Mubarak had for decades supported the interests of America in the region (including protection of Israel). Of course, it should be noted that Mubarak’s support came with the price of a “blind eye” to the oppressive nature of the Egyptian government and billions of dollars in aid. After the overthrow of Mubarak the Obama administration was quick to recognize the new provisional government and to encourage an “open and free” democratic election of a new government.
Despite the surprising and unexpected election of Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, as the new – and first democratically elected – president of Egypt, the American government acted swiftly to recognize and attempt to build ties with the Morsi government. Thus, from all outward appearances, the Obama administration had done the right thing by supporting the democratic movement, while not becoming directly involved in determining the outcome.
But wait! Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood quickly made it clear that they viewed “democracy” as a tool for getting elected, but not as a concept for governing. The Muslim Brotherhood had long espoused – indeed had been founded on the basis of – transforming Egypt into a country governed by the Muslim Sharia canon law; a system that is the antithesis of broad-based individual rights and democratic rule. Once democratically elected, Morsi and his band of brotherhood set about to systematically destroy the newly planted seeds of democracy. It is this situation that presented Obama with the real conundrum to “doing the right thing.”
The Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government was democratically elected by the people of Egypt, but if it continued to head down its chosen path of unjust restraint, the people of Egypt would end up with a government even more oppressive than it had been under Mubarak. The result would not only threaten Israel, but every other Arab (non-democratic) government in the region. This could lead to even more (if that is possible) instability in the Mideast and obviously negatively impact what have been considered traditional American interests in the region. On the other hand, standing aside and implicitly condoning the overthrow (“coup”) of the democratically elected Morsi government by the Egyptian military, is clearly contrary to the Obama administration’s claim that the “right thing to do” is to support democracy. The result of this contradiction is the loss of trust and credibility from all sides in Egypt.
The lesson here is that if one pontificates about their commitment to “do the right thing,” but then vacillates and backtracks when doing the right thing might be inimical to their partisan interests, the results are often worse than they would have been by sticking to the right thing. If one is consistently loyal to what has been identified as the “right thing to do,” then the options for action are clear, credibility is built and respect is gained. On the other hand, doing the right thing with equivocation and inconsistency severely limits options (as Obama is learning), while moral standing is lost and loathing is gained.
On a Personal Level the Issues are the Same
While we may never be confronted with “do the right thing” issues that could change the world, we will all be presented with “do the right thing” issues that could change our lives. In the abstract it is easy to be committed to doing the right thing, but unfortunately we don’t live in the abstract. There will come a time – maybe several – when we will tested to determine if we are really committed to doing the right thing, even if it may seem wrong for us. How we react will determine our future – for good or bad.
Let’s say you are early in your career with a good company, married with a baby and another on the way. You observe your boss systematically cheating customers in order to enhance the performance of his department and ultimately the company. You see him receiving accolades and even increased bonuses, but you know his behavior is a sham and certainly not the right thing to do.
What do you do? Do you challenge him? Do you report this activity to his boss? You have heard the exulted words of high ethics uttered by senior management, but how do you know this activity is not being surreptitiously condoned or even encouraged by the higher-ups? (Enron, AIG and Bank of America come to mind here.) Since you are not participating in this subterfuge and it is not within your bailiwick of responsibility, shouldn’t you just ignore it? Is that the right thing to do?
Conceptually it is easy to say that doing the right thing is – at the very least – reporting the improper activity. But what if your disclosure seems to be ignored? Are you off the hook and have no further responsibility? Even worse, if you do report the activity and your boss survives with nothing more than a reprimand – and the activity continues – what might this do to your future with the company? In theory, of course, you could quit your job and find another, but is this the right time to put you and your family’s financial future at risk?
This type of enigma is not academic exercise. Remember the Penn State sexual abuse scandal of 2011? Mike McQuerary was a graduate assistant coach for the football team who observed his boss Jerry Sandusky abusing children in the locker room showers. McQuerary did what he felt was the right thing by reporting Sandusky’s actions to Joe Paterno. But when nothing happened and the activity continued, McQuerary – perhaps more concerned for his career than doing the right thing – did nothing further. For this halfhearted effort to do the right thing, McQuerary received more vilification and damage to his career than he would have had he pushed to really do the right thing. In reality, if McQuerary had done the right thing, even though it seemed it was wrong for him, he would have likely emerged as the only hero in a very bad situation that would have enhanced his career.
McQuerary is not alone. Anyone who has ever been in the business world, with ambitions to be successful and rise up the pyramid knows this type of situation – and a wide variety of others – is more reality than theory. The real questions are: At what point are you willing to dilute or even trade in “doing the right thing” in order to protect your career by “going along to get along?” At what point do you break and become willing to rationalize the elements of “doing the right thing.”
There is no question that “doing the right thing” is easier said than done. Along with the commitment to do the right thing come complicated and conflicting challenges. The important thing to remember is the reason why you would want to do the right thing is because it is the right thing to do. And in the end it will be right for you too.
And the Moral of the Story …
Admittedly it is difficult and can be challenging, but doing the right thing should be measured against the value of doing so in the long term, rather than what might be short-term repercussions. The real challenge facing those who seek to do the right thing is not just doing the right thing for the moment – that is called expediency, but to have the courage do the right thing for the long term – that is called principle.
In the end doing the right thing – even when it may be hard to do so – is the observable embodiment of the core principles held by an individual, business or government.