Leadership Myth-Busting #9: The end justifies the means

In this series of articles I seek to critique various myths of leadership that seem to be the prevailing attitude and approach of many leaders in the 21st century. The standard against which they are critiqued is the example of servant leadership as exhibited by Jesus Christ.

For many leaders, leadership is all about the results. CEOs are judged by the bottom line; pastors by bums on seats, and sports coaches by the last score-line. The problem with the success-based paradigm of leadership (an article for another day), is that the pressure to perform can be the precursor to compromise. If we are purely judged by our results, then leaders can rightly assert that the end justifies the means.

Many of us who play sports have experienced the temptation to cheat a little in order to get an advantage. Go on, admit it. On the football pitch you may have pulled someone’s shirt. Or on the tennis court you called a ball out when you know it clipped the line. In golf you may have been economical with the truth as you tot up your shots on the scorecard.

Is it really wrong? Or is it only wrong if you get caught?

You may argue these things are petty and part of sport… it’s just gamesmanship. Perhaps you’re right. But isn’t it the win-at-all-costs mentality that leads sportsmen and women towards more serious infringements like ball-tampering, brown envelopes before a game and performance enhancing drugs? When does gamesmanship become something more sinister?

I have a friend in the US who has written extensively on a Christ-centred ethic of participation in sport. He says of sports people who deliberately break the rules in order to gain an advantage that:

“In essence they also base their morality on humanistic pragmatism. They do whatever it takes to win. They communicate by their actions that winning is much more important than any standard of morality.”

Greg Linville

Wow – what a challenge to us for the next time we’re tempted to cheat. Through our actions we’re communicating that winning is more important to us than a standard of morality. That’s a high bar. But it sounds like the kind of high bar we need to apply to our leadership if we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. The bottom line is, if we take the win at all costs approach into the rest of life, it can compromise our testimony and witness as followers of Jesus. After all, didn’t he say that the first shall be last and the last first (Matthew 20:16)? Doesn’t this turn the win at all costs mentality completely on it’s head?

I believe that, as leaders, we need to be very careful that we don’t subtly buy into the ends justify the means mentality. If we claim to follow Jesus then we can’t sacrifice our values upon the altar of humanistic pragmatism. Our actions can easily convey the message that success is more important than any standard of morality.

In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila wrote the following:

However good the deed, one must never do the least wrong in performing it.”

Teresa of Avila

In that simple statement, the godly nun has single-handedly exposed that the end justifies the means is a myth of good leadership! Not only does the end not justify wrong deeds, but good intentions are not sufficient excuse for deliberately doing something that is morally questionable.

Often when we think about the phrase the end justifies the means we apply it to downright wrong things like corruption, bribery or other such nefarious tactics. However, the pressure upon leaders to perform can push them to adopt a win at all costs mentality that has a more subtly destructive impact. Yes, we may not take bribes, cheat on taxes, or break the law. Yet a primary way we expose our susceptibility to this attitude is in how we treat other people. This includes those closest to us – particularly our families who can be harmed as we ambitiously pursue our goals. And it extends to our our employees/staff/colleagues who can become expendable pawns that serve our unabated pursuit of success.

I know I’ve been guilty of making mistakes in this area. As a goal-oriented, visionary leader, it’s easy to make accomplishing our vision of paramount importance at the expense of other critical things – like people and relationships. There are countless sad stories of seemingly successful leaders who have accomplished great things for their organisation, but at the cost of their marriage, relationship with their children and their own health. Dig a little deeper, and you also find that their teams are toxic, full of people vying for position as they trample over one another trying to ascend the corporate ladder and curry favour with their boss. Sometimes people get hurt because we are too caught up in our activity to see that they are suffering. Hurt people will eventually buckle or lash out, damaging others in their wake.

Being goal-oriented is not a bad thing. However, if achieving goals becomes our obsession, then we are on a slippery slope to potentially adopting ungodly means in order to attain our ambitions. Ultimately, this becomes an issue of character. If we compromise our character, then we will begin to excuse behaviour that is driven primarily by our ego rather than seeking the good of others.

Stacy Rinehart in his wonderful book, Upside Down, provides the following corrective to this style of leadership:

“The heart of spiritual leadership, then, is serving people – looking out for what is best for them rather than using them as the means to a larger end.”

Stacy Rinehart

That is the key to avoiding pitfalls in this area – particularly in relation to sacrificing relationships on the altar of our success. Leaders need to ask themselves if we are looking out for the best interests of those around us, and this includes our families, colleagues, board members, shareholders, customers, beneficiaries etc. This is putting into practice the advice of the Apostle Paul who said, Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4.

Rinehart then takes it a step further by giving a definition of success that is beyond the bottom line, bums on seats, winning score-line metric.

“The question is not ‘Does the leader have followers [or any other form of success]?’ but rather, ‘Does the Lord have followers as a result of the leader’s influence?’”

Stacy Rinehart

This completely changes the perspective. There is a righteous end that all Christ-following leadership should be pursuing; that God is glorified because people are faithfully following Him. If our ultimate motivation for leadership is to impact people’s spiritual well-being, then it stands to follow that we cannot justify ungodly means in pursuing that goal.

Simply put, don’t compromise your character in pursuit of success. When we compromise our character, then we risk negatively impacting those around us. No end is a cause on which to sacrifice your character.