The Defying Choice

The Defying Choice

In this fourth and final post of the series, let’s look at what happens if someone in a position of influence or power — someone higher in the chain of command — tells you to do something that runs contrary to your guiding principles (and cloaks that demand in the cloth of cultural values).

Here’s an example — an encounter that upset me at the time, and still upsets me now as I write about it. I was working with two individuals, both of them intelligent professionals in the high-tech field, who had recently been confronted with the dilemma of having to choose between personal integrity and professional loyalty. One insisted that while our examination of personal integrity and its connection to public credibility was all fine and good, it just was not the “real world.” He went on to explain that in his short tenure at his company, he had learned that it was best not to contradict the boss, but instead to simply do as he was told. The second person chimed in that she felt the same way. She followed that by sharing that her boss had told her to misrepresent test results so that a project could proceed uninterrupted, and rationalized his demand by saying they would fix the shortcomings later. She believed that she needed to acquiesce so as to show loyalty, and that not to do so would be seen as a liability to her career. She felt pressured by a seeming cultural norm for loyalty to compromise her core. At the time, she was only in her mid-20s.

Regrettably, all too often I witness this insidious insistence on loyalty (or other cultural imperatives such as conformity, shareholder value, victory, security and the like, any of which can suffocate personal principles). I regularly read and hear about its showing up in business and government in stories portraying individuals who have drifted away from their core to pursue power, profit, prestige, position, pleasure or personal gain. I observe it in the behaviors and words of individuals whose playbook for their real world parallels the philosophy that “Principle is okay, up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”[1]

To acquiesce to a show of loyalty (or conformity, shareholder value, victory, security, and so on) at the expense of your core values causes injury to your character — an injury that can be a lasting liability to your career and your conscience.

I take heart in the words of Thomas Jefferson: “…in matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock…”

And I find courage in the wisdom of Mohandas Gandhi: “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please or, worse, to avoid trouble.”

It takes real courage to defy someone, especially if that someone else is in a position to deny you something you desire. We are right back to dilemma. Or are we? By making the choice to defy someone else’s demand that you damn your own character, you safeguard the only thing that you can truly call yours — your integrity.

It’s up to you. In the end, you are the final arbiter of your actions. 

[1] Campaign advice given by former Vice President Dick Cheney to associates when he was White House chief of staff.

   Source: Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, by John W. Dean.

Excerpted from The Citizen Leader