I remember a few years ago how my leadership coach Vance Caesar helped me understand an unexpected truth about ethics. I talked about a time when I was angry and expressed it “loud and clear” to another person. Vance said, “Do you realize that you were being unethical?” I said: “What do you mean, unethical? I wasn’t unethical, I just got mad.”

Vance asked me: “Do you think there were hurt feelings” – I had to admit there were; “Do you feel good about having done it” – I had to admit I didn’t; “Do you wish it could have been different” – again, I had to admit that I did. “So,” Vance said, “You had a choice to make and you made the wrong choice, so it was unethical.” I didn’t enjoy that much, but I had to admit he was right.

We have choices to make all the time, and while the alternatives are not always clear, I believe there are times we just turn a blind eye to our own “wrong” choices. I know that I do.

Leadership and Self-Deception, by The Arbinger Institute, is among the most powerful books I have ever read – in part because of that ethics lesson I learned from Vance. The book tells the story of a leader who discovers significance in the simple choices we make every day.

It describes how relationships constantly present us with choices about how to treat another person, and we most often know the “right” thing to do. When faced with these forks-in-the-road, we have the option to choose what we know is right, and thereby “honor” our best judgment.

Taking the other road and choosing to knowingly deny our best judgment may often be more expedient or just plain easier. While this is sometimes true for us all, the author describes how this choice makes us guilty of “self betrayal.” But, we say, isn’t a wrong choice relatively insignificant by itself? Well…

When we choose what we know is wrong, we then have to make it right in our minds to avoid feeling guilty. We must build the case for why it wasn’t wrong after all – convincing ourselves of all the reasons why we’re so great and the other person isn’t. The more reasons we add to these mental lists, the more right the wrong decision seems.

This is “Self Deception” – what the author calls being “In the Box.” The big problem is…others are not fooled. If we deceive ourselves, and are not authentic, we create a trust barrier to good relationships (that’s the box image). Getting out of the box requires freeing ourselves from this self deception.

Ever since reading this book I find there is nowhere to hide when faced with these simple choices. As annoying as it can sometimes seem, I need to be honest with myself about what’s right at these moments – with my family, my friends, my colleagues, my clients, as well as with the next person I meet.

It may seem that making a constant series of right choices may be a tough commitment to live up to, but from a practical standpoint, think of all the energy it takes to deceive ourselves – not to mention the on-going relationship damage from being “In the Box.” I think you might agree, right choices seem like a good path toward freedom.

While the book focuses on relationships between people, my belief is that this idea can apply to just about anything we do. Maybe we should all try it today – we may just like how it feels.

Thanks for sharing time with me; as always, I welcome your feedback and please feel free to pass this message along to others who may find value.

Book Suggestion: Leadership and Self-Deception, Getting Out of the Box – The Arbinger Institute


Jeff Black
Managing Principal Consultant, McDermott & Bull Executive Search
Cell: (714) 356-1949 Office: (949) 753-1700 ext. 310
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