By Roger Delves, for Ashridge Executive Education at Hult.
In today’s complex world of uncertainty and change, what lessons can we take from the preeminent Professor Dumbledore about leadership, ethical decision-making, and integrity?
For many parents, one of the joys of having young children is being able to read aloud to them. And many of today’s parents must have read the wonderful Harry Potter series from start to finish, and then revelled in the glorious films. So, it is perhaps no surprise that many adults swear by the wisdom of the great modern-day philosopher, Professor Albus Dumbledore.
In The Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling has him suggest in conversation with Harry that it is by our actions and not our intentions that others judge us. For, as Dumbledore points out, we all have good intentions.
“It is by our actions and not our intentions that others judge us—for we all have good intentions.”
Professor Albus Dumbledore
This goes to the heart of what ethical decision making is all about: what we do is a function of what we decide. And it seems that, for leaders, what we are most often judged by are our decisions and the things that happen as a result of those decisions. What leaders choose to consider in that decision-making process colours their entire modus operandi.
Regularly making high-quality decisions is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. So, how do they get it right and what happens when they get it wrong? And what can we learn from different decision-making approaches in today’s complex and fast-changing world?
Three constants in life: choice, change, and principles
As leaders, we think, consider, evaluate, and then we decide. And the things we choose to weigh in the balance offer insights into our integrity. Few would dispute that, when it comes to the evaluation of leaders and leadership success, it is the quality of decision-making that distinguishes the superb from the merely adequate.
Decision-making in the world of the leadership is freighted with a particular significance because what hangs on the decision can be life-changing or career-threatening. Do we think selfishly or selflessly; of the short-term or the long-term? Do we, however much we intend to do otherwise, weigh the wrong things in the balance, or evaluate them poorly? Do our decisions lead to actions and outcomes of which we are less than proud? Do we sometimes look back, reflect, regret, and wish we could be judged on our intentions and not on our actions?
As Dumbledore also said, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” Whatever decisions we make, and whatever the consequences, we cannot forget to live. Nevertheless, how much better would it be to live with pride in our integrity, knowing that the decisions we make are ethical?
Of course, it is hard to make ethical decisions until we have some sense of what we mean by words like ethics, values, and principles.
Principles to lead by
Stephen R. Covey defines principles as the basic tenets, for example fairness, integrity, and trust.
They are self-evident, by which he means that when we think of them, we agree with them as being self-evidently right. They are self-validating, by which he means that when we follow these principles, they prove their worth. And they are natural laws. Like “true north” on a compass, they are always there—objective and external.
Covey says that real leadership begins with the humble recognition that principles, rather than people, ultimately govern. But in our imperfect and ambiguous world of global business, it is hard to talk about universal principles and natural laws that are absolute, impersonal, factual, objective, and self-evident. This is because people, particularly leaders, are inclined to ask questions like who chose them, when were they identified, and so on.
Principles, as described by Covey, are values that are so good and right, that they are akin to super-values. But the unavoidable truth about values is that they are subjective beliefs.
So, does this take us any further forward?
Imagine you go into an antique shop and find two things that appeal to you. The first is an illuminated map of Europe in 1714, complete with beautiful calligraphy and a carved oak frame. Your next discovery is a beautiful working brass ship’s compass in a pristine satin-lined wooden box.
You negotiate with the owner, and she offers you the compass for the same price as the map. Here’s the question: are either of these objects of any use to you in our contemporary world in a practical sense that reflects their original purpose?
The map is not. The borders of countries have changed beyond recognition since 1714. Being able to read the map is not an issue—the map is simply inaccurate and out of date. However, the compass, if you know how to use it, is still of practical use. North is still where it was in 1714.
That is the difference between principles and values: values shift and change while principles do not.
Think back to the society that existed in 1714 and thinks of what their values were around issues like slavery, divorce, and women’s rights. They are very different from today’s values. Therefore, values are subject to societal change and reflect where we want our society to be today.
Principles reflect something deeper: those things, which we will always want as part of how we live our lives and how others behave towards us. And as such, the self-evident and self-validating principled compass may be a better guide to us than the changeable map of values.