I’ll never forget that lesson on ethics — taught by one of my favorite grad school professors, Irv Grousbeck.
A business manager is asked a tough question. She has the choice to reply without technically lying, but leave out important details and not be fully transparent. It’s the type of response that leaves you with a knot in your stomach. And for good reason.
The lesson? When in the gray zone, great leaders tell the truth — however uncomfortable.
An Eastern parable comes to mind (care of Mark Nepo).
Every day, an old man would bathe in a river. One day, he sees a spider drowning in the water. The man scoops up the spider, gently places it on dry land, and promptly gets bitten.
The next day, the old man sees the same spider drowning again. Once again, he places it back on the shore. And once again, he gets another painful bite.
The third day, the old man sees the spider yet again, picks it up, and is about to place it on the shore when the spider asks, “Why do you keep picking me up? Can’t you see I will bite you every time — because that is what I do.”
The man again gently places the spider on the shore and responds “I will save you every time, because that is what I do.”
You don’t need a reason to do the right thing.
Don’t wait for someone to go first, like some prisoner’s dilemma optimization.
Do the right thing, even when the whole world doesn’t.
Do the right thing, because that is what you do.