Everyday Leaders make decisions. The most important and difficult decisions occur when someone has to choose between “Right” and “Right”. These are what Joseph Badaracco calls “Defining Moments”. While either decision can be viewed as the right decision, the one you choose defines who you are and what you stand for.
A Simple Example
Fresh out of college with my newly minted MBA, I was the supervisor of a 3rd shift assembly line when one of the union employees in the department complained of a migraine headache – requesting time to take an unscheduled break. I could either:
1) Follow the process I had just established and request a written doctor’s note stating that the employee suffered from migraines, which would require a break from work. OR,
2) Seeing that the employee was obviously in pain, let her take her break in violation of my new process, and personally take her spot on the assembly line until she returned.
Now, either choice can be viewed as right. I have a procedure to follow to ensure that employees didn’t just fake a medical condition whenever they wanted to take a break (it had become a significant problem in recent months). On the other hand, the employee was one of the more conscientious in the department and always did a very good job.
Choice 1 defines you as someone who prides discipline and strict adherence to the rules in order to treat everyone the same.
Choice 2 defines you as someone who cares about the individual and recognizes that treating everyone the same is not treating everyone fairly.
Which would you choose and why?
Although I am still embarrassed by my choice of many years ago, I asked for the written note from a doctor and sent her back to the assembly line. After all, I would be seen as weak for going against my new process and I didn’t want to be accused of playing “favorites”.
Within moments of that decision, the informal leader from the assembly line came over and gave me a stern lecture (to put it nicely!). The lecture went something like – “how could I send her back to the line when she is in obvious pain . . . she has always done her job and never created any issues in the factory . . . treating her in the same manner as the other employees that originally took advantage of the system is not fair . . . if you don’t do the right thing now, you will lose the respect of the entire department”.
I spent the balance of the shift on the assembly line.
In that defining moment, I began to form who I was as a leader and learned that “fair is not equal”.
About Leadership Stories
Leadership stories are drawn from the bedtime ritual at our house which usually finished with “Dad tell me a story”. These stories are about our family: Who we are, where we came from, and the sharing of life lessons that were passed on to me. As I told the stories, it became very clear to me the significant impact that they have had on my life, my career, and my leadership style.
- Leadership Stories: The American Dream
- Leadership Stories: The Value of Hard Work
- Leadership Stories: Things are not always what they seem
- Leadership Stories: Defining Moments
- Leadership Stories: Refuse to be Discouraged
- Leadership Stories: The Importance of Storytelling
- Leadership Stories: There is no success without hardship . . . and support.