Principles vs. Preferences: Are You a Disciplined Leader?

business-foundationSelf-discipline, resilience, and integrity all go hand in hand.  But in a much broader sense, the discipline that strong leaders demonstrate reflects much more than mere self-control.

Disciplined leaders must be able to consistently make decisions that are clear-headed, informed, and conclusive.  Their response to difficult and stressful situations is thoughtful and purposeful, never random or subjective, particularly in emotionally charged situations.  Objectives are communicated clearly and unambiguously. This is not always an easy thing to do, which is why self-discipline has such a profound impact on those around us.  To borrow (and modify) a quote from the world of sports… “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”  A firm, definite, and decisive leader demonstrates grace under pressure, very clearly reinforcing the perception that he or she is in complete control (of both the situation and his/her own emotions).

While disciplined leaders are by necessity decisive, they must at the same time exercise sound judgment. Emotions run high in times of crisis.  Most people intuitively look for someone to “do something” in emergencies. It requires great discipline to think before responding.  Any situation that requires action, whether a crisis, conflict, or everyday business decision, necessitates a thoughtful and measured response from a leader.  Knowledge and experience are necessary, even crucial.  But like a sword, they are only as effective as the person wielding them.

Leaders can, and should be, flexible when appropriate.  However, it is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is quite another to compromise on matters of principle. Principles are rooted in personal doctrine or institutional values, and are a specific basis for conduct or management. Preferences are simply a matter of who controls non-essentials, and are driven by experience and familiarity.

It is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is quite another to compromise on matters of principle.

Strong, disciplined leaders understand this difference.  Unfortunately, in a world where the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing. As a consequence, the line between principle and preference is grayed. Principles are compromised for sake of appeasement or through capitulation to the path of least resistance.

It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe.  Some consider this to be close-minded or prejudicial, even intolerant.  One thing is for sure.  Those in positions of influence weaken themselves as leaders whenever they compromise their principles.  Whether in the business world or politics, it is rare to find everyone in agreement.  This is not to say that leaders shouldn’t be appropriately questioned. Convictions that can’t be reasonably defended should be rightfully challenged.

In a world where the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing.

Values vary and people come to different conclusions and form different beliefs.  It requires strength of conviction and great discipline to stay the course when faced with temptation to concede or compromise principles. However, people are far more willing to follow a principled and disciplined leader, even one with whom they disagree.  By contrast, no one will follow a leader they don’t trust or in whom they have no faith, leaders who fail to be true to themselves and the principles on which they claim to stand.

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The Social Construct of Morality

Joining the ranks of religion and politics, morality has quietly become a minefield to be publicly avoided at all costs.  Discussion on the matter, let alone debate, is just not politically correct; someone is sure to be offended.  Others might disagree, but I assert that morality, once commonly guided by absolute principles broadly accepted by society, has gradually evolved to a matter of individual preference.  I personally believe that matters of preference are subject to compromise, while matters of principle should be firmly upheld.  The problems begin when my principles differ from yours.  While my intent here is not to impose my ideology, I do want to explore the cultural inconsistencies in the interpretation of right and wrong within our society.  To that end, I pose these questions as food for thought and comment:

Should the foundation of morality be based on an absolute – a definitively established set of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, or should it be left to the interpretation of individuals or larger society groups?  Should these cultural standards be established or affirmed, recognizing that not everyone will be in agreement?  Do we let the majority decide, or do we default to the lowest common denominator within our culture – the individual?

I’m using the term ‘lowest common denominator’ in the context of contrasting two ends of the spectrum for judgment over what is and is not acceptable, i.e., morally right.  By that I am referring to an accepted societal viewpoint in which the wishes/rights of individuals have priority over those of a larger population.  I’m drilling down to the idea of ‘individual rights’ as the lowest level driver of moral authority, assuming ‘rights’ are interpreted in the strictest sense.  I’m also using the concept of right and wrong in the same context as morality, since by definition, morality is the principles of right and wrong in behavior.

The fact is, belief and value systems within our culture vary so greatly that there is an enormous gap between what most of us believe as individuals and the reality that exists within our society.  Despite what many would assert should be, I don’t think a consensus on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ truly exists in our culture because we simply cannot agree on the boundaries.  Sure, there are certain actions that are almost universally considered taboo, but the waters get murky when you start talking about simpler issues of right or wrong.  Subsequently, no one is satisfied.  We assess issues and behaviors, etc., based on our personal perspective, recognizing the influence that our experiences, beliefs, and shifting cultural views have on us.  Perhaps the most commonly accepted concession is that what is ‘right’ for one person or group may not be so for another.

As a society of like minded people (I’m talking in the broadest sense), we’ve traditionally made sweeping cultural decisions about what is considered right and wrong.  In the age of political correctness, those decisions are being challenged by those who believe the ‘one’ is just as important as the ‘many.’  Priority of designated ‘rights’ has shifted away from the absolute and/or cultural majority to individuals and small groups with interests that do not conform to traditional norms.  Current cultural pressure dictates that we are no longer supposed to judge right or wrong whenever there is the potential that an individual or group might take offense or in some way be repressed.

Some would argue that morality is and should be a social construct.  That concept is indeed at the heart of the questions I’m posing.  Since defining morality as a social construct implies that there are culturally established standards of right and wrong, how then should this morality be imposed upon society, when by doing so, it may in fact conflict with the principles and values of those in disagreement?

In a discussion on this subject several years ago, a friend of mine argued that cultures judge right and wrong at will while governments protect the rights of individuals.  I don’t entirely agree with this, although I think I understand what he was getting at.  Cultures do define and judge right and wrong, however, governments obviously do not always protect individual rights.  The legal imposition of morality is in constant flux and the monitoring and protection of affected ‘rights’ depends on a host of social and political factors, all of which vary by culture vis-à-vis country.  I would point out that even in the U.S., public perception of certain assumed rights is itself frequently a cultural misconception, based on popular assumption but with no specific legal basis.  Simply put, just because we think we deserve something doesn’t mean we’re legally entitled to it, and having a voice doesn’t always equate to having a vote.

That same friend also asserted that “tyranny of the masses precludes justice and fairness” in the application of moral constructs imposed upon broader society.  Assuming that’s true, where then is the demarcation between social morality and individual rights?  How exactly should fairness be defined?  Given the imposition of social/cultural morality on the broader population, exactly how and where is the line drawn when a generally accepted social ‘good’ conflicts with the perceived rights of a smaller group within that population?

My point is our individual concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is founded entirely through our personal perspective, which is a product of our experiences, environment, religious beliefs, and cultural influences.  When does the determination of ‘right’ by the majority justify decisions that adversely impact the minority?  I think we’d all agree that it sometimes does.  Perhaps the bigger question is should it?  Is there in fact an absolute truth that supersedes an inconsistent socially constructed morality?

I think our society today frequently confuses its beliefs with its desires, or more accurately, we shape our beliefs to conveniently fit our desires.  More to the point, we allow our preferences to shape our principles instead of the other way around.  We also confuse our freedoms with rights.  As a result, everyone creates his or her own reality.  In my reality are my perceptions of right and wrong.  There are people who agree with (i.e., share) my perceptions, and people who do not.  Consequently, there are multiple social moralities on any given issue.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve been so programmed to embrace everyone else’s opinions and beliefs, we’ve compromised our own principles in the process.  I’m not suggesting that anyone should be intolerant or judgmental, but I think the terms are often used as a convenient weapon against those who philosophically disagree.  There is nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s not politically or socially correct.  In fact, I believe that by adhering to the rules of political correctness under the premise of ‘not offending anyone’, we’ve completely prostituted ourselves to a homogeneous culture where people are persecuted for defending a principle that conflicts with the preference of others.  There are many people who are not concerned by that, so maybe I’m being cynical.  I just have a hard time accepting that actions and behaviors should be justified based on whether they pass the ‘doesn’t harm anyone’ test.  Shouldn’t there be some better criteria for judging the morality of what we think and do?

We live in an age of anarchy – not political anarchy, but social and cultural anarchy.  Everyone is encouraged to ‘do their own thing’, whatever that thing may be – and it’s all supposed to be okay so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or infringe upon anyone else’s rights.  It’s an inconsistent premise at best and I don’t buy it.  When the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing.

Actions, whether by individuals or societies, have repercussions.  Our decisions and behaviors, whether in public or in private, slowly shape the world in which we live, and ultimately influence who we are.  We create our own cultures, just as we create our own realities.  Whether you believe in a single authority or cultural evolution, there are many social moralities.  The trouble with that is, none are right, some are right, all are right.  It all depends on your perspective.