I was skimming through headlines this past weekend when a particular title caught my eye – it simply read: “Situational Ethics.” Have we really devolved to this level of thinking? Situational Ethics – Really? If ever there was an oxymoron this is it. While this phrase seems to be getting play in some circles, my opinion is that it’s nothing more than the latest politically correct sound-bite which attempts to rationalize and justify wrong thinking and wrong behavior. The bottom line, leadership is black and white. Life is full of areas that benefit from flexibility, fluidity, context, and other forms of nuanced thinking, but ethics isn’t one of them. If the title of today’s post seems a bit rigid for you, I encourage you to read on and see why rigidity in certain areas can be highly productive.

Here’s the thing – leadership begins and ends with trust. Trust is built on a foundation of the constancy of your character, and if your ethics are situational, then I would submit so is your character. You cannot effectively serve those you lead if you fail to earn and keep their trust. I would challenge you to view those whom you might label as black and white not as lacking sophistication, but as possessing a clear view of right and wrong. People who display the clarity and confidence to consistently do the right thing regardless of the current situation have reached a level of leadership maturity to be applauded not mocked.

I want to be clear – situational or contextual leadership is not the same thing as applying situational ethics. The former asks a leader to adapt strategy or tactics while the latter asks the leader to adapt principle – big difference. I would suspect that those who apply situational ethics in their thinking also likely subscribe to the theory of moral relativism. They believe anything can be justified or rationalized by the need at hand, or worse yet, manipulated for the desired outcome. While some might believe this constitutes right thinking, I believe it constitutes flawed thinking. Thinking that supports a means to an end mentality is dangerous and ultimately should not be trusted.

If you pay close attention to those who practice situational ethics you find them to be masters of spin, who while often appearing to do things right, often fail to do the right thing.

People who fall into this camp frequently exhibit inconsistency in their reasoning and/or positioning. While they would describe themselves as flexible, fluid, and open-minded, my take is that their character lacks integrity and can be easily influenced. When a person allows popular opinion or situational characteristics to either define or supersede their principles, then I suggest their character is flawed. Simply put, my contention would be that if you serve as your own moral compass, your character will only be as good or bad as your thinking at that time.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Character is higher than intellect.” I could not agree more with Emerson as virtually anyone can develop their intellect, but it is the rare person who can retain their character. Emerson clearly understood the law of scarcity in placing more value on character. The most successful business leaders of our time have built their personal brand by consistently exhibiting strong character regardless of the situation at hand. They let right thinking, right decisioning and right acting serve as their guide. If you have to manipulate the truth or compromise your values to gain an advantage, the advantage is not worth the perceived gain, for any advantage gained in deceit will surely come at a very high cost – the sacrifice of your character.

Do you have to be perfect to be a leader? Absolutely not – as much as some won’t want to hear or admit it, we all have character flaws. The thing is, character flaws don’t necessarily equate to a lack of character – this isn’t situational rationalization, it’s a fact. We all have chinks in our armor, have had lapses in character, and have at one point or another broken trust with someone. We know how it feels to hurt and be hurt. The issue is not one of perfection or flawless character, but rather understanding our flaws and working diligently to have them be the rare exception and not the rule. The real trick is to focus on issues larger than ourselves. Real leaders understand that leadership has little to do with them – they are simply role players who have a job to do. In order to do that job well, they must focus on something bigger than themselves, serve those around them, and not let their ego, pride, and arrogance overshadow their humility and empathy.

The bottom line, if you want to avoid falling on your face start by avoiding slippery slopes.