Burden of leadership

My cholesterol level, I recently learned, is high enough to experience the Oort cloud up close and personal, which is why I looked at the nutritional information printed on a bag of fudge-covered Oreos. The news was wonderful – only 0.5 grams of saturated fat per serving. Wow! Then I looked at the serving size. One cookie. Who are they trying to kid? Everyone knows the standard serving size for Oreos is a bag.

This demonstrates an important marketing principle: with a little ingenuity, you can lie by telling the truth. And as long as you can defend your statements in court, you’re in the clear. In marketing, this kind of deception is considered ethical. You have to tell the truth, but after that, caveat emptor.

Managers face different ethical conundrums, and CTOs sometimes have a hard time accepting the contextual nature of executive ethics. Take, for example, the widely accepted principle that lying is bad.

Imagine this scenario: Your company decides on a round of layoffs. You disagree. Your options:

Resign in protest. But that would result in someone less qualified and probably with fewer scruples taking charge of the organization you were too principled to continue leading.

Implement the decision but tell everyone you disagree with it. In addition to being unprofessional, that behaviour would be divisive to the company, and would damage morale and motivation.

Implement the decision and tell everyone you support it, even though you don’t. But then, of course, that wouldn’t be truthful.

Implement the decision and refuse to say whether you agree with it. That would keep ’em guessing.

Implement the decision and tell everyone you aren’t qualified to critique it because the people who made the decision have access to more information than you. Except as a member of the inner circle, you would have been part of the decision process. It simply wouldn’t have gone your way. You’d be lying again and be a weasel besides.

What’s the right answer? There is no right answer that fits every circumstance, and no answer will leave your sensibilities untrammeled. Worse, every time you have to make a decision such as this, the line separating acceptable and unacceptable behaviour becomes more blurred and grey. But that isn’t the problem – the line, after all, really is grey and blurry.

No, the problem is inversion of purpose. When you can stomach anything, it’s easy to lose sight of why you wanted to be in the executive suite in the first place.

It’s when your goal becomes just being there that you’re in trouble.

Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, an independent consultancy specializing in IT effectiveness and strategic alignment. Contact him at [email protected].

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