I have been in my share of uncomfortable situations where all the choices before me were painful ones. As much as I would have liked to have punted on the decision, I was the leader and I had to make the choice. Those uncomfortable moments were and continue to be perfect times to rely on my leadership maxims to assist me with my decision making. Over the years I have learned to rely on one maxim for these purposes. It is:
What would Nana say? (For reference, Nana is my grandmother.)
This maxim is straightforward and simple. It evokes strong emotions for me. Whose nana wouldn’t stir emotions in their heart? It enables me to step outside myself and ask what another person would think about my behavior.
It is one thing to disappoint myself. It is another thing entirely to disappoint Nana. The thought of letting her down and doing something of which she would disapprove is a powerful deterrent to bad behavior for me. This maxim is easy to explain and understand. It is much harder to put into practice especially in high-pressure situations. Permit me to share an example.
I had a client sign a contract for training services with my firm. Our verbal agreement called for a specific price per participant in the class and guaranteed a minimum number of participants. When I received the written contract, I noticed the client’s procurement team made an error in the wording of the pricing section. The way they had worded it would have led to them paying me substantially more than the verbal agreement called for. I asked “What would Nana say?” The answer was immediately clear.
I emailed the client and let her know there was an error in the pricing section of the contract. I sent her a corrected version of the contract and explained how the way it was originally worded would have resulted in them paying me several thousand dollars more than we had verbally agreed upon.
Her response was one of disbelief. “Wait… you’re telling me we made an error in our contract and we would pay you more than we originally agreed? And you are voluntarily pointing this out so we pay you less?” Needless to say the story about me proactively making this correction rapidly made its way around the client’s organization. My firm’s already-excellent reputation with the client was enhanced substantially after this interchange.
The long-term value of doing what Nana would say was the right answer was far greater than the short-term benefit I would have achieved had I let the error slip by without mentioning it. Furthermore, if I had let that error pass and it was later noticed by the client it could have earned me a reputation for being sloppy in my contracting at best or selfish and deceptive at worst.
Granted, it was not a stressful time when I made this decision but imagine if my firm was having financial difficulties when this occurred. It would have been much harder to follow Nana’s advice yet her guidance still would have been sound. Good maxims help you make good decisions and keep you on your chosen path. While good ethics do not always lead to good business outcomes, good ethics maxims are important to have if you want good life outcomes.
My maxim about Nana helps me make good ethical choices. I hate taking actions and making decisions that would disappoint Nana. Granted, I do not always live up to those standards and I make poor choices on occasion. That said, I am not willing to sacrifice my ethics to achieve my personal, financial, and professional goals.
I could have easily taken the payment I was not entitled to and that extra money would have put me that much closer to my retirement goal but doing so would have compromised my maxims. Maxims are simple reminders of how I want to behave and they provide direction in times when I have to make difficult choices. They are non-negotiable for me and I do the best I can to live up to them every day.
– If you want to create your own set of personal ethical guidelines, grab a copy of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership or download the audiobook version at Audible.com. It will help you define what’s important to you and what your guidelines in life will be.
– Disclaimer: I have personally violated my self-defined ethical boundaries on many occasions. I’m not at all proud of it and I’ve admitted those times I have done so. My maxims are aspirational goals of behavior. I don’t always successfully live up to them (but I try). I didn’t want anyone thinking I believe I’m a saint who never does wrong.