Author: Hillary Miller-Wise (HMW), CEO of Esoko
Over the coming weeks, I will be writing some thoughts on each of our Core Values. I welcome a dialogue with you on what our Core Values mean.
“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” James 4:17
Doing the right thing is probably the easiest thing to say and the hardest thing to do. It’s only compounded by the fact that is what is right for one person may not be considered right for another. If you live in a society in which maintaining the cohesiveness of the community is paramount, then doing anything that undermines that cohesiveness may be considered wrong.
Let’s take an example.
When I managed a team in Tanzania, we had a case in which someone was stealing from the company. A handful of people knew about it, but no one was willing to come forward because it would have meant undermining the cohesiveness of the community, in this case the “tribe” of Tanzanians. As a result, everyone kept quiet.
In this case, was it more right to maintain the harmony of the community or to expose the individual for stealing? For cultures where the collective is more important than the individual, the choice is not so clear cut.
There is a famous Dutch social psychologist named Geert Hofstede who has developed a framework for understanding cultural differences across different dimensions. One of those dimensions is “individualism”. Here is the definition:
“Individualism is the opposite of collectivism, which is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On the individualist side, we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.”
Now let’s look at the difference between some of the cultures that are represented in Esoko. The US has the highest level of individualism in the world (91), while Kenya and Ghana are highly collectivist with individualistic scores of 27 and 20, respectively. India is in between with a score of 48.
This ranking helped me to better understand, in my example of Tanzania (ranking: 27), why no one came forward to expose the employee who was stealing. The team was valuing the collective over all else.
So how do we arrive at a common understanding of the right thing?
“Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.” Thomas Jefferson
My personal code of ethics is summed up in part by the Jefferson quote above. I know am doing the right thing if I would do the same were all the world watching. In fact, many people define integrity as being consistent in thought, word and action, regardless of who is aware. In the Tanzanian example, once the few people who knew about the theft were confronted with the knowledge that they didn’t come forward, they were ashamed. Their shame told me that they knew what was ultimately the right thing to do.
With every situation in which you are asking yourself what is right, it helps to ask yourself ‘what would I do if all the world were watching?’ That often helps to bring the right thing to the foreground.
“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” Benjamin Franklin
We also have to remember that doing the right thing is often more nuanced than simply a choice between black and white. One of my family members has a code of ethics which can be summed up as’ honesty at any cost’. While the spirit of this idea is noble, it often isn’t practical.
Consider when a woman asks you if you like her new dress, and it’s clear that she loves it. If you think it’s ugly, in most cases the right thing to do is to be polite and compliment her. Are you being completely honest? No. But in that case, the right thing to do is the leave the truth unsaid.
“It is most hateful in the sight of Allah that you say things which you do not do.” (61:3)
Doing the right thing is also about keeping your word. In my family, I have trained my sons such that when I start a sentence with “in our house”, they complete it, and reply: “we never tell a lie and we never break a promise.”
Ultimately, you are only as good as your word. If you don’t keep your promises, people don’t trust you. And if people don’t trust you, you will never be a leader. By keeping small promises – like calling when you said you would or meeting deadlines that you committed to – you build trust and people believe that you can be relied on for the bigger things. I have seen many smart, capable people damage their careers by proving to be unreliable.
Trusting others is as important as being trustworthy. The trust that leaders place in those they lead allows both the leader and her/his followers to excel.
“There is no wrong time to do the right thing.” Charles M. Blow
In short, for me ‘doing the right thing’ is about:
- Acting as if the whole world were watching;
- Being consistent in words, thought and action;
- Leaving unsaid the wrong thing at a tempting moment; and
- Keeping my promises