If having to wrestle with the moral dilemmas you face daily means you can’t show up in a way that allows you to be your best, then the decision just became clear, writes Simon Popley.
A moral conundrum is increasingly being faced by leaders in local, state and federal governments. Many are beyond exhausted in dealing with their core workloads while having to defend other often indefensible situations.
Leaders are feeling demoralised from vacuous excuses denying accountability and responsibility and powerless to change the hierarchy and discord. This has been exacerbated with COVID-19 this year, with leaders asking themselves — should I stay or leave?
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Impact of association
When any wrongdoing happens in life, it is common that those proximate to the transgressor/s will experience the impact of the misconduct and vicarious shame. For example, family members of those charged with any felony are often tarred similarly by their very association.
In a government workplace, imagine that impact as a result of leaders in the spotlight for misconduct and negligence allegations. Managers under them are obliged to stand in front of their own teams to deflect issues. This can create enormous ethical discomfort and psychological compromise.
Erosion of trust
Central to confidence and engagement is a belief and evidence that our work has real meaning, with a positive impact on others.
If leaders are unable to respect their workplace and senior leaders the only way they can survive is self-reliance. That is lonely and untenable road leading to discontent and burn out.
I see many skilled government leaders becoming increasingly depleted of energy and confidence as they feel powerless to make changes within bureaucratic systems. Bellowed pretences of ‘all is rosy there nothing to see here’ is rarely believed by staff who sense the disconnect as they not blind to what is going on. Everyone suffers under the erosion of trust.
The internal tug of war
Relentless internal chatter and tug of war questions add to a leader’s distress, including:
- I work for self-interested people.
- I admire and care for my staff and cannot abandon them.
- I am weak, put up with it, as I’m very well paid.
- I am not a quitter and must bring the needed change.
- The market perception of government is plodding and slow. Who will employ me?
- Things might improve over time.
- Am I virtue signalling, isn’t it like this everywhere?
- I have a family to support and cannot let them down.
Unraveling it all
The starting point is to unravel the spaghetti-like mess of thoughts racing inside your head. Acknowledging your situation is real and not a delusion or conspiracy is crucial.
Talking about the issues with a trusted friend or mentor internally or externally is the next step to understanding your feelings and responses. Reflecting on how issues are impacting your wellbeing and career will reduce feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
Now you need to get off the floor and review the situation from the balcony. Gaining distance and views from the balcony creates real perspective. These vantage points provides the multivariate data to draw a bigger picture of deeply complex issues.
Learning to hold multiple and competing perspectives is a capability foundational for effective leadership. The capacity to see entire the ‘system’ through multiple lenses is essential to navigate the complexity of government human architecture.
Once greater perspective has provided a more informed picture leading to greater clarity, now is the time to act. And essential to this is to move away from all the tail-chasing and procrastination to make clear distinctions between actions and beliefs.
But many are stuck in the spider web of rumination. Being tangled in a web of rumination engenders feelings of hopelessness to change and is pernicious in keeping leaders stuck and not evolving. Each time action are clear, rumination bites again.
Albert Einstein famously quoted: “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.
Rumination is incessant thoughts spinning in circles without any destination or positive outcome and is correlated to cycles of depression. Minimising is crucial for effective leadership, mental health, wellbeing and decision-making.
Moving forward requires active reflection by asking the hard questions and examining evidence of attitudes and beliefs, including:
- Do I work here out of fear or a sense of obligation?
- Am I leading with integrity?
- Where is the focus — me or others?
- Is my leadership making a positive impact?
- If I interviewed myself, would I hire me?
- Can I be part of the change that is needed?
- Is the problem insurmountable?
- How do I feel about this situation?
- What is my role and obligations here?
- Can I find a way forward that does not conflict with my values and ethics?
From a psychological standpoint, reflecting brings us back to a mid-point. But we need much more. Reflection is not enough to move us forward to a place of psychological thriving and wellbeing.
We need to be bolder: reflection and mindfulness have their place. They are tools to aid the journey. However, they are not the destination.
It is only through action that we can truly change how we feel about a situation and change the problem itself. Goal setting and action have the effect on rumination that sunlight has on vampires: it kills it dead.
Options: stay or leave?
Reflection provides us with clarity of what lies within our control and where we can influence effectively. Raging against the issues that lie out of our control fuels incredible existential angst and feelings of despondency. It might be an interesting place to visit for a few minutes, but don’t book a two-week holiday there — not unless you packed the Prozac. After weighing up all that is occurring, you may decide leaving is in your best interests. Or you may decide to stay and take a different approach, or transition careers totally. Whatever your decision, make it a positive one that you are proud of owning and acting on.
Whatever decision you make, the key act is to commit and stick to it without waver. If you do not do this, you just end up boarding the express train to a deeper malaise and hole.
Perhaps a way forward is with a caveat of 18 months aligned with three specific changes sought. Remember, every skill and experience has other applications and clarity of confidence, and self-determination is key.
The important question
At the end of the day, the most important question for leaders to ask themselves is:
‘Where can I serve that makes a meaningful contribution?’
If having to wrestle with the moral dilemmas you face daily means you are unable to show up in a way that allows you to be your best, then the decision just became clear.
In the end, where you serve as a leader is unimportant. What matters is how you lead, wherever you decide to be.