Recently I read an article in the New York Times by Wolf Biermann, a German singer, and songwriter who has lived on both sides of the Berlin Wall.  Its title was The Tragedy of Angela Merkel.  

In explaining the conundrum he believes  Chancellor Merkel faced when confronting Germany’s Syrian refugee crisis, Biermann writes:  Watching Shakespeare in the theater, you can grasp what tragedy means: every possible solution is wrong.  The dramatic hero does not have to choose between good and evil, but whether to make this mistake or that one.  

This situation seems all too familiar from my experience.  We often find ourselves facing a dilemma where almost every option seems incorrect, unjust or unsuitable.  Why isn’t there a better choice or at least one that doesn’t seem like a mistake waiting to happen?

It is reassuring to think of decision making as a rational process, where we can logically think things through, generate options, consult others, and pick a course of action we are comfortable with.  But situations, where none of our options seem right or desirable, produce uncomfortable emotional feelings that can overwhelm logic.  We dread making a decision that we fear is quite possibly a mistake with potentially serious consequences before we even implement it.

Just ask a cancer patient confronted with a choice of treatment options, none of which assures a cure and each of which is likely to make them terribly sick in the hope of it being a cure.  Each option may seem wrong and a potential mistake but they must choose, or do nothing at all.  Admittedly this is an extreme example but life is full of less extreme similar dilemmas we routinely face.

There is no book solution on how to make such decisions but watching how we make them, tells the world a great deal about us.  Situations where every option seems wrong or a potential mistake are moments where we get to define ourselves; that is, demonstrate who we really are.

In one of my favorite movies — Class Action — father and daughter lawyers are pitted against one another in a class action suit against a major car manufacturer. Maggie the daughter, is a successful corporate lawyer representing the manufacturer.  Her father, a liberal civil rights lawyer, is representing a member of the class.  At one point in the film, Maggie is discussing her father and the case with her father’s partner who tells her the following: You’re probably going to beat him, Maggie, we both know that.  You have the staff and the money to grind him into the ground.  But even if he loses, he’ll know he went down on the right side.

l love this quote because it introduces the subjective notion of a right side of things.  Objectively, the right side of any issue, we can argue, is open to debate and hard to define in advance.  Subjectively, however, we get to decide what’s right for ourselves.  It is our values, core beliefs, principles, sense of right and wrong, ethical and moral compass, and our basic character that guide us to a decision choice even when every option seems objectively wrong.

Individually, being on the right side of something depends on the subjective choice we make, filtered through the personal qualities that define us. It tells the world what kind of person we are regardless of the outcome.  It tells the world what we value and what values we deem important.  It is also the side we can best live with regardless of the outcome.  And it’s the side we can sleep with at night knowing we did the best we could.  I’m not sure it gets any better than that when every option seems potentially wrong.

*Listen to this Post on Spotify Podcast: “Insights for Managing & Leading”.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Leadership, Managing & Leading

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1 reply

  1. The answer to your question about why there is not a better choice is that this is imperfect Planet Earth, and we are fallible and picky beings. When in a position of no perfect pitch to throw under such conditions, my college baseball coach recommended that we just step off the mound. AT a minimum this disturbs the hitter. Yup. In your cancer patient dilemma, the right decision is probably “do nothing at all,” or try alternative medicine or eat healthy and exercise and think positive thoughts. I liked the rest of your article about choosing the “right side” of an issue. But now you’re into Philosophy as much as business. The University of St. Thomas, which has gotten many years of my life, in many capacities, advertises itself as “Educating leaders of Faith and Character.” They would agree with your conclusion here.

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