by Christopher Hoenig

Total Leadership: Consult Your Moral Compass

Feb 15, 20036 mins

Real moments of truth last far longer than a moment. They are high-stakes decisions about agonizing moral dilemmas and sometimes indistinct trade-offs where deliberate thought and action is required.

Every moment of truth is like a storm on a leader’s long voyage through life. Getting through these storms alive and well requires many choices. Some are made in public?for example, hard decisions about your staff. Some are made in collaboration, such as executive committee choices on corporate strategy. But most are made quietly, when no one is looking. It is how you behave when no one is looking?facing the forces of human nature?that molds your character, your leadership ability and your career.

Triumph in a moment of truth is about both doing the right thing and getting the right thing done well. Success requires preparation and a combination of decisiveness and reflection. In facing the chaos and disorder of challenging experiences, it helps to have touchstones to frame your response.

My touchstones come down to four elements that can be influenced and a fifth factor that can’t. If you have a knowledge of the forces at work around you, a strong moral frame of reference, solidly built character and leadership ability?plus some good fortune?you can emerge from difficult situations stronger, wiser and more successful.

The Forces at Work

In most moments of truth, you will be at the mercy of elemental human forces that drive who we are?among them ego, shame, greed, desire, fear and fallibility. These human traits cannot be suppressed, but they can be understood and sometimes channeled. Fear can turn to insularity, indecision, panic and paranoia. Or fear can drive awareness, focus, courage and confrontation.

A pivotal moment for me occurred when I worked as a consultant, and under the influence of jet lag, lack of sleep and a 14-hour day, I left a stack of sensitive materials in a parking lot. In the middle of the night I woke up and realized my mistake, immediately buffeted by fear, shame and the desire for self-preservation. It took me hours of deliberation to come up with a plan.

In the morning, before anyone could confront me, I walked straight into the office of the client’s CEO, confessed the magnitude of my error, took full responsibility and asked that he blame me, not my firm, and remove me from the job. After a moment of hesitation, he smiled and said I had just displayed the kind of character he wanted working for him and that he would be proud to have me continue on the project. A narrow escape.

A Moral Frame of Reference

Even if you understand the forces at work around you in a crisis, making the right choices requires a clear, moral frame of reference. This may come from one or more underpinnings: your upbringing, your friends, religious teachings or the law. The more of these sources you can use to frame a choice, the more robust your decision making in tough, ambiguous environments. A strictly legalistic or regulatory frame of reference, for example, will not support you in situations that are outside the strictures of the law or do not have a right answer.

Some of my most difficult moments of truth involved weighing loyalty to colleagues against the interests of stakeholders I was representing. When people I trusted and respected were beginning to operate beyond their ability?and this sometimes included myself?it took a strong sense of right and wrong to avoid simple notions of blame or accountability. Firing a key team member, for instance, might appear an easy resolution, but it could also have threatened the very interests I was responsible for by provoking unconstructive responses from other team members. Instead, I forced myself to carefully parse my responsibility and that of others, confront everyone with the gaps we faced as a team, and try to prepare us for bringing in others who would strengthen our collective ability but also diminish our personal wealth and position. Not an easy task.

The Bulwark of Character

You must have a solidly built character to weather a crisis. The dimensions of character include courage, resilience, humility, patience, tolerance and humor. Understanding your strengths and flaws can help you avoid situations where tremendous pressures are brought to bear, your strengths are of little help and your vulnerabilities are exposed?which is a recipe for disaster.

I remember several moments in my most important relationships?personal and professional?when I was confronted by terror, betrayal, seduction or greed. I felt the tug of simple solutions: to run away and escape, to grasp for safety and rescue myself, to give up and let the waters close over me. It was only the model of my parents?the shining examples of leaders I have known?and the strength of my own character that allowed me to stay at the helm, maintaining shreds of hope and faith, while I steered for a safe harbor that often seemed far beyond the horizon.

No less important than a moral frame of reference and solid character in getting through very difficult situations is talent in navigation and piloting. This requires skill at decision making, a mental library of similar tactical situations, and maneuvering skills that demand a sense of pace, timing and a feel for the environment around you.

In selling my latest venture in face of the recent market crash, the collapse of the venture capital markets and the loss of my business partner to an active-duty call-up by the armed forces after 9/11, I knew most of what we were up against. But it still took more than 10 months of pure tactical negotiation, mediation, counseling, hand-holding, coaching, struggle and confrontation to actually execute the decisions and balance the risks and rewards to get to a reasonable outcome.

Because so much of what I’ve discussed here is deeply personal, writing this column became a moment of truth for me. Would I have the courage to discuss my most difficult experiences? Or was I going to gloss them over with a few expedient themes? In keeping with the spirit of this column, I’ve tried to follow the former path. If you can do the same with your own touchstones, you will find lessons that will make you a better leader. But more important, you can go forward on the most significant of journeys, becoming a better person.

Share your moments of truth by writing us at Christopher Hoenig has been an entrepreneur (CEO of Exolve), consultant (McKinsey & Co.) and inventor, and he is the author of The Problem Solving Journey: Your Guide for Making Decisions and Getting Results. He is a director of strategic issues for the General Accounting Office.