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Unless an individual is a sociopath or psychopath, people know the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this is not the same as doing the right thing.

  • Knowing’ is the moral foundation to do the right thing.
  • Doing’ is having the courage to do the right thing.

True leaders must possess the fortitude and demonstrate that they have the courage to do the right thing, every time. So, what is “courage”?  It’s the ability to move forward despite the consequences. We know about one form of courage: think of our military, first responders, and those on the front-line battling the coronavirus; people who put their well-being and lives at risk for our country and others.

Moral courage can be viewed as a different form, as wanting to do the right thing is not the same as doing the right thing.

When people are confronted with challenges, they can come up with reasons to hold firm or reasons to collapse. Challenges that employees deal with vary by company, job, organizational level, etc., but moral courage is required nonetheless, albeit in differing “levels.” For example, a customer service representative knows that they should show up to work on-time every day, be truthful, not steal, and treat the customer and their co-workers with respect. The temptations to not live up to these basic standards or morality are lower-level, and most people can withstand them.

However, there are also higher-level pressures because sometimes telling the truth, for example, can have unpleasant consequences. One example: would you comply with your boss’s instructions to hide a product or service flaw, whether or not doing so could harm the organization’s operation or reputation, or regardless if you might get “found out” or not? Would you go along with what the boss said for fear of possible ramification of not doing so, regardless of the potential negative impact to others? Or would you have the moral courage to strongly push-back or even go to a more senior person in the organization to advise them of the problem?

Another example is peer pressure. People naturally form groups, socially and at work. People with lower moral courage may find themselves “going along to get along,” especially when they perceive the rest of the group is conducting themselves in a certain way. This might even include treating an individual or individuals in their work group disrespectfully or unfairly, spreading rumors and innuendo, etc. The activities of these people, as well as others merely “going along,” lack moral fortitude, are personally hurtful, and damage the group and organization as a whole.

It all falls back to a very simple approach: doing the right thing. Picture yourself as that misguided boss. Wouldn’t you prefer to have an employee give you a heads-up if there was an issue with a product or service, to push back and have the difficult conversation about why addressing it straight-on and not hiding anything is the right thing to do? Or, think about yourself as that mistreated co-worker. How would you feel if people were spreading rumors and innuendo about you? Wouldn’t that make you feel angry, hurt, and resentful?

Wanting to do the right thing is not the same as doing the right thing; but doing the right thing all of the time can be difficult. However, when you have a strong moral compass and do the right thing, you have a positive impact on others, your personal life and your work life are less stressful and a lot more enjoyable; and you’ll sleep better at night.


Thanks for JP Rosso, Strategic Partner at HPISolutions for his contributions to this article.