Finger in the Wind Leadership

Finger in the Wind Leadership

David W. Hegg

We’ve all heard of leaders who put their fingers in the wind to determine which way the political breeze is blowing before deciding what to do. And while this smacks of pragmatism, it also describes one theory of ethical behavior.

Known as consequentialism, this theory considers the best actions to be those bringing the greatest good to the largest number of people while harming the least. This ethical system determines right and wrong based on the consequences of each action.

Of all the ethical systems, consequentialism is the most flexible. It fosters what we know as situational ethics. Unfortunately, as our culture has become less character based and more achievement based, consequentialism has taken on a greater role in overall decision-making.

We see it today in politics, business, athletics, and almost every arena of life. Choices are made in reaction to considered consequences rather than core values. Examples include politicians who promise one thing but do something different when it becomes clear their promised action would have negative personal consequences. Businesses engage in illegal or unethical behavior if they determine the upside is worth the risk. Athletes knowingly ingest performance-enhancing drugs – both illegal and devastatingly harmful to their bodies – in order to gain competitive advantage. Each of these actions is based, not on what is ethically right but on what is consequentially expedient.

It is true changing one’s position based on the consequences can be virtuous, especially if the initial decision was ethically wrong. But for the most part, consequentialism – so rampant today – sets the wrong course for the individual, for families, for businesses, and for our nation.

On the opposite end of the ethical scale is the theory of deontology. This system suggests ethical decisions and actions derive from core values of right and wrong. A decision and its corresponding action are right if they correspond to standards and values previously understood as imperatives.

The first and most obvious difference here is understanding the right choice may in fact bring about negative circumstances. For example, a politician may lose support if she votes her conscience rather than with the majority. A salesman asked by his boss to make false claims to gain a big sale may lose his job if he refuses. An athlete may fail to make the Olympic team if he competes within the rules regarding drug use. But in every case we sense the honor of prizing integrity over expediency.

It is clear consequentialism is becoming more and more the norm. Yes, there are times this system is profitable, as in deciding between equally virtuous actions. But when the consequences reign supreme in our decision-making we’re all in trouble.

Every parent starts out believing it is important to instill in their child the essential components of character. These include honesty, patience, courage, integrity, and a host of other qualities we believe will keep our kids on the right path, and able to resist the debilitating temptations this world will hold out to them. We teach our kids to recognize the consequences of bad choices while at the same time helping them understand the choices are wrong even before the consequences hit.

Perhaps the greatest danger in consequentialism is its flexibility. Without an anchor called core values, consequentialists are ethically nimble, able to change the sails of their decision-making to take advantage of the winds of personal advantage or public opinion. We had better take notice, and replace this pragmatic way of thinking, before it is too late and we end up shipwrecked on the rocks of reality.

Photo Credit: "Business Man Finger Crossed Hand Sign" by Teerapun;