As a leader, your character is not measured by your decison-making during easy, profitable times. Your character is remembered by how you deal with crisis, danger, and risk, and how you react when you find something rotten is taking place.
Sadly, you don't have to look too hard to find examples of cowardly leadership, or at least leaders who have made cowardly decisions. Just look at some of the instances from the last several years, such as the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, or the NFL's Ray Rice domestic violence case. If leaders are not willing to make moral and ethical decisions, especially when those decisions could threaten to bring down the organization, they shouldn't be at the helm.
Tom Kolditz, director of the Leadership Development Program at Yale's School of Mangement, knows what it takes to make the right decision in times of crisis. The retired brigadier general tells Inc. that sometimes leaders need to fall on their sword.
"Leadership is inherently practical," he says. When it comes to leading in a moral manner through a crisis or dealing with illegal activity at your company, you must be "willing to do the right thing, even if it costs [the business] some money or some stature."
But why exactly do leaders make cowardly decisions? Kolditz says it's the result of "taking excessive self-interest in the face of fear." To help his students make moral decisions during sticky situations, Kolditz came up with a process that every leader should run through.
The key to this process is to take your time. Bad decisions are analyzed quickly, do not obtain consensus, and ignore moral intuition. The first thing you need to do is analyze the situation in legal terms. Will you get arrested or fired, or come away unscathed? Consult with your lawyer so you will know where this decision, or lack of a decision, can land you, your company, and your employees (though this answer alone shouldn't direct your decision).
Next, reach out to your team and get an ethical consensus--what ethical action can you all agree on? Then, since you are the ultimate decision-maker, it's time to harness your moral intuition. Focus on what your moral and ethical impulses are telling you.
"Moral intuition is the most important. You can get bad legal advice, an unethical immoral consensus, but your moral compass can still be correct," Kolditz says. Throughout this process it is pivotal to be self-aware--tap into your gut and find out what is right and what is wrong. "Bad decisions are made because leaders get stuck in legal thoughts and money [considerations] and end up justifying unethical decisions."