The pain of the decision was tangible. He knew that paying off the ex-employee made the most logical sense, but it was just plain wrong. The ex-employee was a scumbag. A thief. A liar. “It’s about the principle,” he yelled. But deep down, the owner of a small company knew it was more prudent to pay the ex-employee to settle a dispute than it was to risk battling it out in court, or worse yet on Yelp or in the eyes of the customer.
Standing on principles doesn’t always yield profits. Smart decisions yield profits. Smart decisions can also yield company growth, organizational stability, and even corporate satisfaction. Smart decisions help us avoid the emotional entanglements of just and enable us to look at right. Maybe ‘right’ is the wrong word. Maybe we really are just talking about “smart.” And when it comes to weighing right versus just, leaders need to be smart.
Great leaders know when to give away the cow to save the farm. They know when (and how) to inhibit the impulse to justify a bad decision even if it feels like the right decision. Feelings are not typically the best business motivators for smart decisions. Smart decisions come from analyzing the facts and data and determining the best course of action based on that analysis.
But there’s another side to this coin. Principles are often the drivers behind a successful leader. A person who refuses to compromise a value for the sake of something less important may often turn out to be the most successful person. When we hold tight to our principles, we can often achieve what others simply could not hold out for. Principles, in other words, can be powerful components or motivators to smart decisions.
So what is a leader to do? Stick to principles and go for the just outcome? Or, make the right choice, despite principles? The answer comes by knowing when to give more weight to the principle and when to give more weight to the right choice, but you can see the problem, can’t you? How do you even know when the principle is right or wrong?
Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. Let’s take a different perspective.
What if principles are the wind blowing in a certain direction. What if “right” and “just” are functions of how we adjust the sails (or our imaginary ship) to harness the power of that wind (or principles). What if the principles are actually the things that power us, and our decisions really have more to do with how we achieve the most distance with our decisions. Maybe it’s not about “right” or “just” at all? What if leaders really need to look at smart and let your principles guide you into a smart decision?
Paying off an employee to avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars is smart, but it may not feel right. What’s your principle in making the decision? Avoiding losses or punishing a bad employee? Protecting your ego or propelling your company? In most instances, your principles start to look more like values, and values always have a priority.
If you’re a leader and you’re faced with a right or just dilemma, step back and ask yourself, what’s my primary goal in this context. [Hint: You’re looking to identify your principles] Now prioritize your principles, and make the decision that supports and furthers that principle and propels you towards your goal. Anything else is like taking down your sail in the middle of the ocean and just hoping you’ll end up where you intended. The decisions you have to make are your sails – use them to harness the power of the things you value. You’ll end up in the right place.