Defining Moments: A book review by Bob Morris

defining-momentsDefining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right
Joseph L. Badaracco
Harvard Business Review Press (1997)

How to make decisions that could – and probably will — reveal a manager’s basic values and, in some cases, those of an organization

I read this book when it was first published (in 1997) and recently re-read it while preparing to interview its author, Joe Badaracco. If anything, his key insights are even more relevant and more valuable now than they were then as business leaders continue to struggle with ethical issues today that are more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can recall. Crickets may advise on decisions involving right-versus-wrong but we need more when making more complicated decisions.

According to Badaracco, “This book argues that “right-versus-right choices are best understood as defining moments. These are decisions with three basic characteristics: they reveal, they test, and they shape. In other words, a right-versus-right decision could reveal a manager’s basic values and, in some cases, those of an organization. At the same time, the decision tests the strength of the commitments that a person or organization has made. Finally, the decision casts a shadow forward. It shapes the character of the person and, in some cases, the organization.”

Badaracco cites a number of sources from which he extracts some important perspectives. For example, consider this passage in Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic, The Prince: “how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation, for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his profession of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.”

Machiavelli’s central insight is that successful leaders have to follow a special ethical code, one that differs from their private morality and from Judeo-Christian ethics. He affirms virtu, his word for the moral code of public life in a perilous world. Virtu is a combination of vigor, confidence, imagination, shrewdness, boldness, practical skill, personal force, determination, and self-discipline.

In Machiavelli’s time and in our own, leaders need to address three questions:

1. Have I done all I can to secure my position and the strength and stability of the organization?
2. Have I thought creatively and imaginatively about my organization’s role in society and its relationship to its stakeholders?
3. Should I play the lion or the fox?

Machiavelli: “The lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves.” Do whatever the situation requires to prevail. Be as strong as a lion and as cunning as a fox.

Badaracco: “Here are Machiavelli’s lessons for managers whose decisions will define their company’s role in society and its relationship with stakeholders. First, don’t be coifed by success. Success means having a strong and prosperous organization, for the weak and impecunious can do little good. Second, watch your adversaries; don’t overestimate they ethics or underestimate their power. Third, remember that managers cannot simply define their company’s role in society; they most negotiate it. Therefore, be fluid and seize opportunity — sometimes play the lion, more often play the fox. And in all cases, rely on virtu.”

Other sources include (in alpha order) Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Marcus Aurelius, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, and Sophocles. Badaracco quotes these comments by Nietzsche in The Will to Power (his unpublished notes) with which I now conclude this brief commentary: “The greatest persons perhaps possess great virtues, but in that case also their opposites. I believe that is precisely through the presence of opposites and the feelings they occasion that the great man, the bow with great tension, develops.”

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