Recently I caught up with an old friend and colleague. My friend is one of the most competent, smartest, and hard-working executives I know. He is also one of the most principled.

At one point in our conversation he turned to me and asked, "Why am I not more financially and professionally successful?"

I was surprised it took a couple of heartbeats to answer him -- I've known him for almost 15 years. After a few seconds of thought, I replied: "It's because you sometimes confuse which group of principles to apply to situations -- (i) principles for personal conduct or (ii) principles for ensuring group success."

Which then inspired this post on leadership and principles -- or doing the 'right' thing.

On principles

My friend lives by a set of traditional Judeo-Christian principles for personal conduct. He abides by The Golden Rule -- treat others as to how you want to be treated -- do not bad-mouth someone, especially behind his back. He carries those principles into the work place and turns the other cheek if someone attacks him politically in an organization.

If everyone you work with abides by these principles of personal conduct, then you won't have a problem living by them too.  The challenge is, not every does. And even if they did, they might not be competent enough to judge a situation so they may not be acting in the interest of the team.

Why is this a problem?

When you are a leader, often times you don't have the luxury of applying your principles for personal conduct over doing the right thing for your organization -- the team has to come first.  

Thus, the people that hurt the team, need to be singled out and removed.

Sometimes, it is good people that are hurting the team (e.g. people in positions which they are professionally not prepared for). Sometimes, it is the innocent (e.g. in a layoff in a non-performing unit).

For example, What do you do if an incompetent colleague is blaming you for a deal falling through... probably because she's worried that she might lose her job if she takes responsibility. If you are clear that she is incompetent (and that you're not just covering your own behind), then you need to take this up with your boss.  Letting her stay in her current position, and removing you from yours is not good for the organization... yet, this is exactly what would happen if you abide by a good set of principles for personal conduct, and avoid talking negatively about her.  Should you even have waited until she started attacking you before you tried to get her replace? (Please be clear, in this example, it should be objectively clear that your colleague is not competent, and you are -- using yourself as the only judge is highly biased -- seek out neutral observers to confirm or refute the observation.)

As a leader

Imagine if you are an engineering lead and made an erroneous hire.

You start noticing that every module of code your hire makes, is buggy and breaks the system. And your hire repeatedly submits faulty code over several months. As an experienced engineering lead, it is clear this engineer's sub-par work is simply because (s)he's not a very good programmer.

This person may be a good human being with good morals and values, etc., but your responsibility as a leader, is to prevent this individual from disrupting your team.

Best case scenario is finding this person another job within the organization this person is better suited for. If not, it is your responsibility as a leader to remove him from the team.  If you have any sort of a heart, that process of termination should not feel good.  But for the good of the team, some things have to be done.

The lesson here, is that if you as a leader are always feeling good about what you are doing, either you're a narcissistic S.O.B., or you're probably not always doing the right thing for your team.

For a leader, sometimes doing the right thing should suck.


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