When people live or work together for a while, they usually start communicating in a private short-hand. Just a few words can invoke an experience they shared or a story they heard, even a joke that always prompts a knowing laugh. All the meaning of the original moments is captured in a few words that never seem to lose their significance.
Bev and I do this, like most married couples. There are phrases we can say to each other that inspire courage or offer comfort or move us to nearly uncontrollable hilarity and yet no one who heard us would have any idea what we were talking about. This is a wonderful fruit of intimacy. It can also be fruit of a principled life.
I once led an organization with a man who became a dear friend. Together we led that organization from dysfunction into celebrated seasons of success. Since we battled side by side so often, we developed a kind of “warriors jargon” made of half-sentences and code phrases. One of these phrases has become an enduring life principle for me: the right thing is always the right thing.
Sounds odd, doesn’t it? What we meant by this was that the moral, ethical, just, and fair decision among all our options was always the right thing to do. We didn’t need to reason too much. We also didn’t need to be distracted by what seemed huge obstacles or daunting consequence at the time. We simply needed to do the right thing. All else would resolve itself.
Why? Because there is a God. Because there is power in noble deeds. Because action radiates long after the action has ceased. Because there are invisible laws to human conduct. Mess with them at your peril.
I remember we once learned that we did not have the right permits for cables that were strung above city roads. Should we ignore it and hope no one saw? No. The right thing is the right thing.
Should we deny severance pay to the employee who had been stealing from us? No. There were children involved. And even the wicked deserve mercy. The right thing is the right thing.
We had given our word in a business deal. The other party betrayed our confidence time and again. Should we break our word? No. We paid. Why? The right thing is the right thing.
A popular figure in our organization made no end of messes but seemed to have no trouble taking credit for the work of others. Do we expose the truth and humiliate him? No. We correct in private and erect unmovable boundaries. Why? The right thing is the right thing.
My friend and I must have said these words to each other ten thousand times. Sometimes we were grateful for the clarity they gave us. Sometimes we said them through gritted teeth. We did not always want to be merciful, or generous, or protective, or honoring, or silent. We learned, though, that our emotions—and even our agreement—did not define the right path. Morality did. Justice did. God’s will did. Truth did. It was humbling. And sometimes maddening. Yet, the right thing is always the right thing.
I share this for three reasons. First, great leaders grow great cultures and great cultures are fashioned, in part, by wise words. Think about the culture that would be created by a leader who constantly says and constantly lives the truth that the right thing to do is always the right thing to do. Don’t you want to be that leader? Don’t you want to build that culture?
Second, take a look at your life. Where would a commitment to the right thing being the right thing force a change? Well—and I say this with compassion, having been forced to do it myself—go make that change.
Finally, I have shared this because failure nearly always has a moral, ethical component to it. Doing the right thing is not just about keeping a code of conduct for its own sake. It’s about creating an environment in which people thrive, truth prevails, and success is possible.
Okay. That’s it. Have a great weekend. By the way, my new book Ask the Question: Why We Must Demand Religious Clarity From Our Presidential Candidates releases next week. You can order it here. I’ll be on a number of the major news talk shows and I hope you’ll follow along on Twitter @MansfieldWrites. See you there.