Monday, 14 May 2018

Thin Difference/Jon Mertz: Ethical Choices: Followers, Courage, and Imagination

Thin Difference   

Ethical Choices: Followers, Courage, and Imagination
By Jon Mertz    May 10, 2018

Ethical choices may not hit us every day. We cruise along, thinking all is well or ignore the elements that seem annoying. In our cruising along, we begin to put a bubble around us. After all, we feel safe in our world of “all is well” and “looking the other way.” Within our bubble, we are making ethical choices, whether we want to admit it or not. We are choosing who we follow, what courage we exhibit, and what imagination we embrace.

No one is perfect. However, imperfection still requires us to review a track record.

    Are more than 3,000 lies told in 466 days someone that we wish to follow?
    What courage do we have to stand up to leaders who continue to take the ethical low road?
    Can we step back and view the bigger picture impact of what individuals do or do not do?

Each question gets to the root of follow ethics, moral courage, and moral imagination.
Follower Ethics

The first element – follower ethics – raises the thought of how others can let unethical actions happen. Many ethical case studies involve people who were asked to do work that crossed an ethical line or supported someone who crossed lines unchecked. Followers have a responsibility to hold others and themselves accountable.

What I know is that finding a job with our integrity intact is better than finding a job with our integrity shattered. We need to plan and act accordingly.

I realize that it can be challenging to leave an organization or a boss when finances are thin and job uncertainty stares back at us. Shame on the leader for putting us in that position, but now we need to decide what to do next and at what cost. What I know is that finding a job with our integrity intact is better than finding a job with our integrity shattered. We need to plan and act accordingly.

Another option is to be a counterpull. In an interview, Ira Chaleff, author of Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong, used guide dogs as an example of “intelligent disobedience” because they will do a counterpull to prevent someone from going over the edge (McDonald, 2015). Followers need intelligent disobedience to avoid getting themselves and others embroiled in bad ethical decisions and actions.
Moral Courage

Intelligent disobedience requires a strong dose of moral courage, which leads to our second element. Johnson (2018) describes courage as an emotional strength, an inner compass that guides us to refuse to put our values aside and, most importantly, to act contrary to an unethical direction and set a better example. Given this, we may need a solid mix of emotional intelligence and ethical intelligence.

To gain ethical intelligence, we need moral courage. Equally, moral courage needs ethical intelligence to know when to stand up. Keeping and strengthening these two is vital for leaders, especially in how leaders develop, encourage, and recognize followers who demonstrate both.

The combination of moral courage and ethical intelligence seems to come together under moral potency by adding the element of ownership. Moral ownership means individuals believe that they are extensions of their organizations and, as a result, they have a greater moral obligation to act ethically (Johnson, 2018). Moral ownership helps prevent self-centeredness and focus on a greater purpose.
Moral Imaginationethical choices

Moral imagination is the third area that resonates. Moral imagination encompasses other perspectives and explores ethical dimensions of situations (Johnson, 2018). In too many situations, it seems that individuals get themselves into trouble by being too in the moment, unable to step back and view a situation from different angles. Patience may be an attribute needed to enable better moral imagination and prevent making unethical choices.

We do not need to cut corners, but we need the ability to look around the corner to see how our ethical choices may unfold. Visualizing ahead on each of our critical decisions will help us make better ethical choices. You can be successful and ethical.
Ethical Choices: Reflections

In reflection, I consider the strength of my own moral courage while thinking about how to strengthen the moral courage of my team. A good leader needs good followers, and good followers can keep a leader accountable by taking counterpull actions. Moral courage is a team effort and an organizational culture necessity. Using the idea of moral imagination can bolster the leader and follower by taking the time to consider the different perspectives of a situation or decision.

To discern our ethical choices:

    We need to remember our ethical and moral responsibility as a follower.
    We need to find practices that bolster our moral courage and provide us an ethical bank account in order to walk away when all else fails.
    We need to find our patience to take a wider view of situations and understand how certain actions impact a future we get excited about or want to avoid.

Ethical leadership is an individual’s responsibility. Whether follower or leader, we are never off the hook. Bad ethics carries a big cost. Good ethics carries a culture of individuals gathered to do good works in the best way possible – with moral courage and imagination.


Johnson, C. E. (2018). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership casting light or shadow (6th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

McDonald, D. (2015, October 30). Creating the Followers of Tomorrow. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from

Photo by Cory Woodward on Unsplash
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Author: Jon Mertz

Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon has a background as a farmer’s son in his formative years, a political appointee during his 20s, and a marketing and business development leader over the past twenty plus years. His work has been in large and entrepreneurial companies like Deloitte, IBM, QuickArrow, and Corepoint Health.
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