Who Do You Throw Off the Boat?

 In Blog

Previously published in Silver Sage Magazine, March 7, 2020

Years ago, I taught a management course that worked towards the development of leadership skills using a variety of strategies that emphasized trust, collaborative decision-making, and survival skills. One of the activities was the now-familiar “lifeboat exercise.” The premise was deceptively simple: you are one of ten survivors in a lifeboat that can only safely carry six and must decide who remains on board. As you can imagine, this generated much discussion, negotiation, and sometimes indignation. Whose life is to be valued more than another’s? And on what basis?

As I think back over all the groups with whom I used the exercise, I never once was given the following solution: everyone takes turns sitting in the boat, while four at a time swim and push it. I remember listening to my students awkwardly debating the value of a life and watched them unceremoniously decide to tip someone out of the boat. It was an activity designed to make them utilize their decision-making skills as a group, and not an exercise that defined morals or ethics.

As I reflect back to my time in that classroom, I now realize that I missed an important opportunity to help my students understand that life’s major decisions should always be made in ways that align with their core values. In every aspect of society today, emphasis is placed on the freedom to live one’s life on one’s own terms and to make decisions based upon individual belief systems. This has become the norm because there is no longer a set of universal values that provide guidelines or dictate social and cultural behaviours and responsibilities.

The term “moral compass” is currently used to describe the set of personal values that guide an individual’s decision-making about their behavior in relation to the wider world. These are the beliefs that help us determine what we consider to be right or wrong in any given situation. In my managerial role, for example, I often found myself having difficult conversations with a colleague or holding someone accountable for behaviors that were not acceptable in a work environment. I did this despite an overwhelming urge to take the easy way out and say nothing. Those decisions to act came from a place deep inside me that believed my integrity would be compromised if I did not take action. Moreover, although they were often not easy to make or act upon, such choices allowed me to live with myself, and to feel confident that I was fulfilling my role to the best of my ability.

This type of decision-making is rooted in three simple core beliefs: all individuals have the right to be valued (dignity), all individuals have the right to thrive (well-being), and all individuals have the right to speak and act with truth and honesty (integrity). As someone in a leadership position, learning how to navigate the role without compromising one’s own moral agency often became difficult. How much easier it would have been to ignore the employees who consistently under-perform. How much simpler would life be if we could avoid all such conflicts and decisions.

When pressed into deciding such things, I routinely asked myself: What is my core business and who do I need to protect? What is my responsibility? Who is being hurt? I understand that the physicians’ Hippocratic Oath contains the phrase: “First do no harm” (Latin: Primum non nocere)I love that. In fact, I think it should be the mantra for anyone in public service or leadership.

Although I am now retired, I continue to consult and sometimes mentor. As such, I have to check myself constantly to ensure that my values and my actions are consistent with each other. I’m not suggesting that making these connections is something that I am brilliant at, but it is something that I still work very hard to do. I have frequently had to adjust my own preconceptions about individuals and particular situations in contemporary life and question whether my beliefs and values have become outdated or potentially hurtful. (Fortunately, I have a son who is quick to point out such lapses when I grumble about things like new forms of pronoun use.) Part of my own learning has been to recognize that I have no right to trespass on other people’s values unless those values are harmful to others, and that being a respecter of persons means continuing to respect individuals who operate with divergent value systems. This has been among the most challenging of paradigms for me, and I suspect for others, particularly in a workplace setting.

Adjusting my moral compass has been an ongoing effort since the very beginning of my employment experiences. As a young person, I unquestioningly carried those things that I had been taught at home and in community and church settings. When my parents’ teachings no longer fit the situations I found myself in, I had to draw my own conclusions and begin to make decisions consistent with what I understood to be important. The adaptation of my practices in this respect has taken place over a long period of time.

I believe that it is critically important to address the development of a moral compass when we help our children and our younger colleagues understand the decisions we are making and the priorities we have set. Equally important is that while we remain true to our core values, we also remain willing to adjust our thinking and actions to accommodate legitimate social and cultural change. I would suggest that our survival in the lifeboat depends upon it.