A Case Study in “Ends Don’t Justify Means”

All leaders are temporary officeholders. No matter whether one is a military officer, a c-suite executive, an elected official, or a Scout troop leader, no leadership position is permanent. It might be 6 months, a year, 4 years, or perhaps many years, but eventually all leaders get replaced. As leadership is at its heart a “service”, then leaders have a responsibility to being ethical and place the good of the organization above their own.

Leaders Who Think the Rules Don’t Apply to Them

The “ends justify the means” crowd are perhaps the most dangerous of leaders in the “bad” category. These people live by the idea that rules are for other people, not for them, and that whatever gets the job done is acceptable behavior. It is customary for a base commanding officer to have his own base newspaper and public affairs office. At a particular small base, the base commander had neither newspaper nor a public affairs office, so he co-opted the magazine that was designed and published as an advertising vehicle for his morale and recreation activities to use as a newspaper. It was plainly against Air Force policy, since the money generated by the servicemembers’ patronage at their base morale and recreation activities were to be used to support the morale and recreation fund only. The magazine was funded through those revenues and should have been used to soley support the servicemembers’ morale and recreation programs.

However, the officer in question felt that using the magazine as a base paper served the “greater good” and simply ignored the rules. He wrote an editorial in each publication and insisted on various base clubs getting free space to announce their happenings for the month. The publication became a cross between a base newspaper and an advertising magazine, growing the magazine into something more than the policy foresaw. Furthermore, the officer began to exercise editorial control over the entire magazine, even going so far as to personally approve fonts, artwork, layouts, and the cover design. What should have been the work of a team of advertising professionals able to “flex” to the needs of the market to reach their customers became a monthly ordeal requiring more paperwork and meetings.

The result was a demoralized staff that felt they either had to cover for their boss and wait him out, or report him to the chain of command and risk reprisal. The base commander was well-intentioned and had a legitimate need to communicate. However, in this instance, by not using any sort of external orientation for his internal compass, he simply rationalized that the ends justified the means. By seizing control over the editorial process, he made the staff self-conscious about other decisions as well, inducing several staff members to leave and stifling the creativity and initiative of the rest.

A micro-manager is dangerous enough, but to attempt to micro-manage creative people is doubly worse because it inhibits the aspect of their work they love the most. This creates an atmosphere of fear and resentment, not to mention reducing productivity.

Unethical Leaders Destroy Organizations – and Themselves

The bottom line here is that “ends” no matter how well-intentioned, can never justify “means.” A leader who runs their organizations as if it’s a personal fiefdom is inviting disaster because even if their motives are pure, team members and employees will often interpret guidance and suggestions to mean things that are at best a waste of their time, and at worst unethical or even illegal. In this case study, the officer’s penchant for bending the rules eventually caught up to him and ended his career sooner than he’d planned.

Further, and more to the point, a leader who believes the “rules don’t apply” creates factions within his organization that gravitate to the extremes. One faction will emulate the “ends justify the means” attitude and bend (or break) rules themselves. This could lead, at worst, to gross mistakes that legally endanger the entire enterprise. Perhaps a less experienced employee would commit a crime or serious breach of policy based on the idea that “the boss does this sort of thing all the time, so it must be OK.” A more experienced and perhaps less honest employee could be emboldened to break the rules (or the law) based on the idea that “since I’ve got something on the boss, he can’t touch me.”

Set the Example

A leader of integrity follows the rules and sets the example because it’s the right thing to do. A leader cannot bend the rules without expecting his followers to do the same, or alternatively compromise his own integrity. Neither of these outcomes is a formula for long-term success.

This post is taken in part from Mickey’s book, Leading Leaders: Empowering, Inspiring, and Motivating Teams, available at Amazon, Lulu, and other bookstores.

Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. Mickey now works with clients around the country to improve performance and help organizational transformation. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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One thought on “A Case Study in “Ends Don’t Justify Means”

  1. Thanks Mickey. It is so easy to take a small step out of bounds to justify the ends that leads to a second step and then a third. Leadership is not about being perfect, but the best leaders help others to stay inside moral and ethical boundaries and work hard at doing the same. Right and wrong are not about risk and reward, success or failure, but about who we are.

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