The Heart of a Dove and the Hide of a Rhino: Seven Lessons for Ethical Dilemmas

In the last few months both Jeff and I have encountered challenging ethical dilemmas involving organizations and people that we really care about. What follows are a few of the important lessons for Tender Lions to be aware of, because it’s only a matter of time before you and/or your son are going to encounter a challenging ethical situation. While you can’t anticipate everything, it’s best to have your eyes wide open. Consider discussing these seven observations based on our personal experiences:

  1. When you “poke the bee hive” don't expect the bees to thank you. To the contrary, you’ll likely see an extreme reaction, and you’ll probably get stung. You may have just exposed a level of intellectual dishonesty, ignorance, arrogance or some combination of each. That’s embarrassing.
  2. People can be really smart and still have big blind spots. I know from personal experience what that’s like. It wasn’t until I had a blinding flash of the obvious (to others) about my own addictive and destructive behaviors that I had any hope of seeing my own blind spots. No amount of conversation with others was going to convince me otherwise until I had the “aha” moment. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his “On Stupidity (Letters from Prison)” wrote,
    1. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical—and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one.”
  3. Society is so polarized along various lines that many have lost their ability to understand right from wrong. They’re willing to defend their position or friends regardless of their actions to protect their ideology. The blind ideology trumps facts or rational thought.
  4. Resolving difficult ethical situations can be like “fighting with pigs.” Everyone gets dirty, and the pigs don’t care. Even with the best of intentions and clear outcomes, it’s highly likely that no one will come out on the other side a winner.
  5. Count on the unethical person to: a) go on the attack, and b) to avoid and deflect the real issues. Often this type of person has lost their ability to deal with their own emotional pain, and their quick fix response is to lash out. They attempt to displace their pain by causing pain for others. It’s also common that the other party will try to damage your reputation and discredit you. The deeper the issue and the longer they’ve been getting away with “it” the stronger and more violently they'll push back against being exposed.
  6. If you’re going to enter the fray, be ready to stay in it for the long haul. People who are driven by shaky motives, and do it regularly, know that most people don’t have the stomach, courage or resilience to stay at it. Thus, most people give up and go home…that’s what the other party is counting on.
  7. Don’t count on the one who’s had their mistake exposed to ever admit their error. Unfortunately, little or no progress can be made with one’s heals dug in.

Before you decide to poke the bee hive explore the implications, and understand that this may be a long and emotionally draining ordeal. And…and…ask yourself what truly is at stake? Will the organization be permanently damaged? What matters most…the relationships, the organization’s reputation, who they serve, your own integrity?

I can see that there’s a fair amount of irony in these situations, because both parties may appear to be behaving badly. What will become clear over time is which party has the pure motives, and desires the best for the organization and the people involved. Admitting one’s own mistakes takes courage and a big dose of emotional health. This is the only path to true restoration of relationships, building of trust and improving the culture.

I encourage you to be an example that your son will be able to say, “My dad took the high road, my dad did the right thing, my dad stayed true to his values and faith. It was not easy, but it was the right thing to do.” I remember a professor of mine, Stephen Schmidt, who withstood many slings and arrows in a tough ethical situation being described as a leader with the heart of a dove and hide a rhino. That might just be what it takes in tough ethical situations. I like that!

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