“I just got off the phone with Luther,” wrote Nancy, referring to one of our past customers. “He’s got another proposal for us.”
As I read it, I quickly determined this was likely another one of Luther’s non-starters. One in which we’d be taken far out of our wheelhouse to satisfy some lightly-baked notion that had struck him in the middle of the night.
Though my gut reaction was negative, I suppressed it and told Nancy, while it didn’t appear promising, we could discuss it further in the morning. By the time the sun came up, Luther’s concept wasn’t looking any better. And so, we politely declined.
But it wasn’t so long ago that the decision would have been much tougher. Truth be told, we had a tough 2015. The good news is that the downturn gave us the incentive, the need, to revisit many things about our business — to revamp, to innovate and reinvigorate. And we’ve pulled it off, with the first half of 2016 probably yielding more sales than the entirety of last year.
And so, now operating from a position of strength, we could tell Luther we were going to pass on his proposal — one that, I’m fairly sure, would not have been in the strategic, long-term interests of our organization. But when one is not in a position of strength, how can solid and sound long-term decisions be made? How can one ignore the difficulties of today so as to avoid mistakes that must be reckoned with tomorrow?
The answer is one cannot. And the point is that no decision can or should be made in a vacuum. The point is that despite the negative connotations of the term, “situational ethics,” all decisions are, or should be, situational. In a different sense, “situational” simply means taking all the relevant factors into account, and isn’t that one of the cornerstones of good leadership?
I can think of two historical examples that make the point. Abraham Lincoln wanted to save the union, but he would not let some of the very things that made the union worth saving contribute to its demise. Specifically, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus (allowing the indefinite detention of “disloyal persons” without trial) during the war — a controversial move for which he was excoriated in some quarters.
“Lincoln defended himself against charges that his administration had subverted the Constitution, however, arguing that acts that might be illegal in peace time might be necessary ‘in cases of rebellion,’ when the nation’s survival was at stake.” (A proclamation on the suspension of habeas corpus, 1862, The Gilder Lehrman Institute Of American History)
And we all know Lincoln was successful in his efforts.
Recently, I listened to the audiobook: “Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar,” by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni. In this book, we learn the negative effects of having no ability to adjust our behavior to the situation at hand. While some might idolize Cato for this, a total adherence to his rigid code of ethics was like a straightjacket. He could not adjust to the changing times, the need for flexibility, and ultimately watched Caesar destroy his beloved Republic.
As with many other instances, I’m going with Lincoln, but with some caveats. There are some extreme measures you might enlist from which there is no return, but there are others that don’t equate to selling your soul, simply sullying it, and they allow you to fight another day. The key is simply making the right decisions — doing the right thing at the right time.