It is a phrase that is quite common at organizations, but I was still a bit stunned when the words came out of my manager’s mouth.
“We didn’t have a choice.”
The words seemed to echo in the room. I had brought up concern about how a recent, difficult decision was made and my boss seemed to share that concern. Normally, our leadership team tried to follow the Jeff Bezos rule: “to disagree and commit.” It was unclear if my boss had vocally disagreed with the decision, but clearly he was not able to commit either. His only defense was those five words, “We didn’t have a choice.”
In that short phrase, there were two significant problems. By saying, “we” this leader was putting the responsibility for not fighting the decision on the group rather than on himself. He was tying himself to the decision of the group. In some ways, it is as if he was saying no one else in the group spoke up so he couldn’t. The problem with this is that groups do not make decisions individuals do. A big part of integrity is staying true to your own beliefs and values even when it means going against what others have decided.
Accountability demands the use of “I” and not “we” because as individuals make decisions, individuals always have a choice. Each person has the ability to decide how to behave, act and respond to what is happening around them in all circumstances. If Viktor Frankl, while in a concentration camp, was able to believe that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”, certainly we each have the ability to decide how to behave, act and respond to the challenges we face.
When you give up your agency you become, to use Fred Kofman’s terms, a victim rather than a player. A victim is someone that says, “I am late to a meeting because the meeting before this ran long.” They blame the meeting for a choice they made: to not leave in time to make their next meeting. A player recognizes the choice they made and if they end up late for the next meeting, they own the decision by saying, “I am late because I chose to stay in my last meeting longer.” By thinking in this way you are able to take responsibility for the choices that you make.
While you always have the ability to make a choice, choices have consequences. When you say that you didn’t have a choice in a situation what you are really saying is that you were unwilling to accept the consequences of the action that you preferred. While it will not always be clear what the outcome from your decision will be, when you make a choice in this way you are making a bet on the outcome you prefer rather than the values that you stand for.
A leader with integrity places their values and principles before personal consequences when making a decision. A leader with integrity asks the questions “is this action, this choice, aligned with my values?”, and “is this action consistent with who I want to be?” It may be as simple as recognizing that it will be uncomfortable to leave a meeting before other people do, but because I value being on time and I respect other people’s time I will bear that discomfort. Sometimes the decisions are harder and the consequences more severe. I have seen leaders lose out on severance benefits or even lose their jobs by placing their values over the personal consequences. They made tough choices because they realized the short term consequences mattered a lot less then the integrity of who they were as people.
I don’t think integrity is static. It is a behavior that you can learn and improve by becoming more comfortable handling difficult moments with grace. In the stunned silence of that room, I didn’t follow through on my values. I should have compassionately pushed for accountability. The consequences of speaking would have been discomfort and at the time I chose silence. By reflecting on that moment I have learned from it. I will be ready to put my values over discomfort next time. What choice can you make to put your values first?
“The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny — it is the light that guides your way.” — Herclitus