Do the Right Thing – Nothing Else Matters

There are countless sayings, axioms, golden rules and mantras that people associate with being an effective leader – and human being for that matter. Perhaps none are more important than ‘Do the right thing.’

Anybody remember the movie ‘City Slickers’?  Jack Palance played the character ‘Curly’. He was a crotchety old man long in experience and stories to tell.  At a couple of points in the story he started to tell Billy Crystal and the boys about ‘the secret to life.’  They would lean in when he was talking, waiting for this secret. At one point he held up his index finger (while wearing some leather gloves made for a tough guy dude rancher) and said, ‘there’s this one thing, one thing.’  I honestly don’t’ remember what that one thing was or if he ever got to it in the story, but the image was impactful.

So, let me share what I think that ‘one thing’ is when it comes to being a leader – and a human being.  The most important four words I’ve ever heard strung together are: ‘Do the right thing.’  While certainly a gold standard by which to manage one’s career, ‘do the right thing’ is also a pretty darned good mantra by which to live one’s life as well.

On almost a daily basis there is a story in the news about a company, an organization, an institution that has been accused of wrongdoing.  We see it in the private sector, the public sector and in the non-profit world. And, as the details come out, most often things went astray the minute someone calling the shots made the wrong decision.  None of us bat 1.000% all the time and no doubt at some point we all make a bad call.  What matters is if it becomes a habit, and just how big are these mistaken decisions in the grand scheme.

A financial incentive, the prospect of recognition or the drive to win at all costs are often what’s  behind a conscience decision to ‘not do the right thing’.  What’s ironic is that once the individual and his/her mistake is exposed, the very thing they set out to accomplish is in ruins.  We put our careers at risk which can’t be good financially, recognition earned is all negative, and for certain there is no ‘W’ in all of this. At stake here is credibility and reputation.

One technique that can help in guiding leaders to do the right thing is to pretend the customer is there in the room with you when a key decision is about to be made – or an action is about to be taken. Such a compelling ‘visual’, this mindset is certain to guide one to doing the right thing. I’m reminded of how we all drive when we see a cop in our rear-view mirror.  Same thing.

The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that ‘the only thing that can be good or worthwhile without any provisos is an action of the will freely motivated for the right reasons’. In short, Kant tells us that there is no substitute, short cut, or workaround for doing the right thing.  Our track record in this area will become the basis upon how we are measured in our careers and in our lives.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the book: In Pursuit of Ethics: Tough Choices in the World of Work; O.C. Ferrell & Gareth Gardiner.  Call it a person’s guide to doing the right thing when faced with a key decision:

If the choice is a tough one

and you’re a little uptight

if the answer ain’t easy

and you’re feeling some fright

if your guts say it’s wrong

well, they’re probably right!


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