6 Leading through tragedy

Now that we have thought a little about the process of making decisions related to ethical dilemmas, it is time to think about the aftermath of these decisions. This is a dimension of leadership rarely considered, but we argue that this aspect is just as important as the decision itself. The ethical dilemma, as most experienced practitioners will tell you, never fully disappears – its effects linger.

The case study you reflected on in the previous section is in fact an adaptation of a dilemma posed by the philosopher Bernard Williams (1973). In Williams’ dilemma you would be faced by the prospect of being asked to shoot dead a single innocent person in order to save the remaining 19, with no option of simply walking away. This is clearly a far more extreme dilemma, but people in leadership positions across sectors do frequently encounter decisions that hold serious consequences for individuals and society as a whole.

Williams (1973 and 2008) refers to these situations as ‘tragic’ because there is no single, correct answer. In these situations you feel the discomfort, the distress and remorse associated with the decisions made. Feeling and emotion are good signs that you are capable of functioning as a mature ethical practitioner – if you did not feel it, then you should start to truly worry. Looking at situations from this perspective, it is important that you and the organisation survives with its sense of ethics intact.

Adopting this perspective tells us that we need to ‘stick with’ (Ladkin, 2011) and stick around to participate in the leadership that follows any difficult decision. This is about thinking how you can contribute to rebuilding and re-energising the organisation in the face of a very difficult decision. Thinking of the tragic suggests an element of sacrifice on the part of those who would act as organisational leaders. You have to absorb some of the pain and act as a kind of lightning rod for the emotions of those who work in the organisation, if that is what the organisation needs.

Sticking with a tragedy can of course become self-indulgent. Again, though, there is no formula that tells you when it is time to start moving on and putting a decision to one side: it is a matter of feeling your way through. You will know better than most what your organisation can tolerate and when.

We therefore conclude this week by reflecting on your experiences in leadership ethics and thinking in more depth about some of the things you can do in leadership to get through a tragic situation.

Activity 5 Ethical leadership decisions

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Recall a time when either you or one of your colleagues had to make a difficult ethical decision. Reflect on the following questions in your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

  • How was that situation handled in the aftermath of the decision?
  • What kind of things did the people making the decision do after the decision to strengthen the ethical integrity of the organisation?
  • Or, to adopt a less optimistic stance, what did people not do to strengthen the ethical integrity of the organisation?
  • Do you remember how your actions or the actions of others made you feel? Describe those feelings and explore what they meant to you.
  • If you could rewrite the past, what would you have done differently, or wished others had done differently?

Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 4 Activity 5.


The point of this activity was not to explore a correct way of approaching the aftermath of a decision. Rather, it was to prompt you to start paying attention to the physical and emotional aspects of organisations that follow on from difficult ethical decisions. How you find yourself responding to others and the spaces you inhabit can provide you with important clues about what is important to respond to, to talk about and to address with others.

Reflecting on how you feel and what you notice in yourself and others can form the basis of important conversations with colleagues about the sense of ethics you share and value. Having considered the ways in which ethics can lead an organisation and how you can work within ethical dilemmas, we conclude the week by drawing out a key practice, one you have done a lot of already.

5 Engaged leadership ‘within’ ethical dilemmas

7 Key practice: ethical reflection