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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades: When “Close Enough" Isn’t Good Enough

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

Image by oliver-cole @ unsplash

Sometimes doing something “close” to right isn’t good enough.

As a father of four I find myself increasingly making use of dad-sayings that I learned from my own father, when discussing life’s most important matters with my children and others.

Mind you, when these pearls of wisdom were dispensed to me as a young man I rolled my eyes, scoffed, or otherwise convinced myself that my father’s sage advice somehow didn’t apply to me. We all think our own ethical dilemmas are special; especially when we are teenagers.

Current events have put one saying at the forefront of my mind over the last year.

If my dad asked me how I did with some critical task, especially those involving doing the right thing where other people are concerned, I frequently hedged by saying that I did the task mostly right or “close” to expectations.

The response to this was invariably, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

My father was teaching me that there are some tasks and responsibilities that we have a responsibility to do completely, and to best of our ability, correctly and with precision.

My professional work revolves around interpersonal relationships; building, optimizing, maintaining, and repairing them. It’s very rewarding and demanding work. It’s also very flexible. There are often multiple right ways to solve an interpersonal problem, and sometimes it can be good enough to get a solution to a relational problem mostly right.

In interpersonal work, the downside consequences resulting from a lack of perfect practice is usually fairly low. Except when it’s not.

For example, the #MeToo crisis, clergy abuse reports rocking the Catholic Church, and the constant drumbeat of teacher/student sex scandals in the K12 public education world all have one thing in common. In most individual cases, someone knew.

People, often powerful people, knew what was happening and either looked the other way, helped to hide what happened, or in the worst cases abetted the behavior in order to protect their own careers or ingratiate themselves with the perpetrators.

Leadership is an inherently interpersonal endeavor. It can be a very nuanced and creative art. However, some leadership challenges demand precision and completeness.

When it comes to protecting the vulnerable and upholding core ethical and moral principles, close to right isn't good enough.

Everyone enjoys a great office, flashy title, and the leather chair at the end of the big table. However, to whom much is given, much is required. If you stay in a position of leadership long enough, the bill for these privileges will come due. You will be confronted with the choice of whether to do the hard and precise thing, or the easy and obfuscating thing.

A top banking executive from Mexico once told me why corruption in the financial system was so difficult to uproot. He said that the problem wasn’t knowing what was happening. Many people in his system know at least some of the who and how of the rot.

The real problem, he said, is that everyone feels a little dirty. Everyone feels a little dirty because even the “good” people knew or saw something in the past. It might be only one instance or a small accounting detail that they knew was a problem – and they did nothing. The moment came to do to the right thing and they balked. They took the easy route and let it go.

This person usually feels deeply guilty. They might feel like a coward. Perhaps they rationalize their inaction by telling themselves that it’s not their problem or responsibility, that some other official or entity should act. But at the end of the day, they know that they already ignored the corruption once. It will be easier to ignore it again in the future.

Ultimately, it’s not the will of bad people that maintains the corruption, but the shame of good people.

We all want to be heroes. We want to believe that when our moment comes, or comes again, we will do the right thing. We hope we will choose to suffer the slings and arrows we know might come.

However, the hard reality is that unless you are doing the right thing today, you are very unlikely to do it tomorrow.

Everyone reading this, myself included, has failed in a moral obligation at some point. Perhaps you corrected that failure. Maybe you didn’t. Regardless, the only thing each of us controls is what we will do from this day forward.

Here are some queries for self-reflection that I find helpful to keep my ethical compass calibrated and my leadership responsibilities clear:

  • Have I seen, heard about, or suspected behavior that raises concern for the physical or emotional safety of others?

  • Have I seen, heard about, or suspected behavior that raises ethical or legal concerns for the health and/or reputation of my organization?

  • Have I been pressured to withhold information or willingly kept secrets that should be shared and known?

  • Have I done everything in my power to take action and raise this concern directly with those involved and/or with those who have ability to address the situation?

  • If I have failed to raise these concerns directly, what support or assistance do I need to do so? Who specifically can I turn to for help, support, and wise counsel; both inside and outside of my organization?

  • To what extent am I willing to risk suffering personal consequences for doing the right thing?

  • What would help me act more courageously today and in the future?

None of us are perfect. Frequently, we are not as courageous as we could be. However, upholding our core ethics and safeguarding the vulnerable are not horseshoes and hand grenades. Don’t let close enough be good enough.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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