House of Straw…built on sand

House of Staw

“Why would you steal $100 rather than $1m?” one of my first managers would say, “because ultimately your just putting a price on your integrity.”

Every time I heard him say this I couldn’t help but agree, especially when I held him in such high regard as a leader.

Many months after he first educated me with this statement he did something that eroded the respect I’d developed for him. As he was leaving the organisation we worked for, he lied to maximise his financial benefit. In that moment the price of his integrity was $15,000.

This story is not about whether what he did was right or wrong. This story is about the fickle nature of all of our values, beliefs and fears, which then influence our thoughts and behaviours.

The driver beneath the drivers

In any moment, especially when feeling confident in our identity and place in the world, we can feel certain about our values. When faced with choices we hold firm, using our values as the yard stick against which we make our decisions. In these moments our integrity is reaffirmed.

As human beings however, confronted by the five inescapable human dilemmas, the moments where we feel such a sense of self-confidence are not everlasting. Instead, life throws at us circumstances that challenge our sense of survival, identity, meaning and freedom. And in these moments, we realise that we are single, isolated human beings trying to make sense of our lived experience as we seek to navigate the complexity and mess of modern day life. Furthermore, in these moments the values that we held sacrosanct become like a house of straw built on a foundation of sand; they shake and shudder and can ultimately collapse under the strain of our existence.

A house made of staw

This is what I believe happened to my boss. The initiating factor driving his decision to leave was a concern for his family’s future, and although this wasn’t related to their survival, for him it felt like it was. With this back drop, he created a sense of justification for his actions which helped him legitimise the choice he was making.

Creating a stronger foundation

When we translate this into being a leader, we have to recognise that our sense of self-confidence and self-assurance in our role will always come under pressure. Whether due to unexpected events at work or in life, our sense of reality can be challenged leaving us ‘blowing in the wind’ as we seek to find a stable position from which to exercise our choices.

To find this stable position is to acknowledge that as much as we hate to admit it, our values, beliefs and fears are not absolute and not unshakable. Recognising this we must go deeper into what it means to be a human being and embrace the five inescapable human dilemmas. By doing this, we can more authentically understand their influence over our behaviour and seek to more actively embrace them.

For example, with my manager at that time, I’m sure that he was being driven by his sense of mortality and survival wanting to provide the best for his family. I’m also sure there were concerns regarding his identity as he was seeking to reinvent himself when leaving the only company, he’d ever worked for. Finally, his sense of meaning in the situation resulted in a belief that he was owed by the company.

We are all impacted by the human dilemmas. Our ability to recognise and more authentically challenge their influence is the key to our success and fulfilment. In looking back on the situation, although at the time I felt betrayed by him as a leader, I now recognise that he taught me that no matter how strong our values may seem to be, we are all human beings. And although this knowledge may not necessarily change the decisions we each make in a moment, it may help us be more authentic in making choices.

Something to try

Take a minute to consider a decision your facing which challenges your values. Against this decision, ask yourself how your response to each of the five human dilemmas are influencing your choices.

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