By  Marcy Maslov
January 30, 2014. Big Boss calls you into his office to promote you to supervisor.  He hands you the employee files and then tells you to fire one of your team for poor performance.  You suspect the real reason is because this person is a great worker but not a “team player.”  So instead of firing her, you decide to help her define performance measurements without telling Big Boss.  Is this ethical leadership? (-e-Factor!® scenario)

I was reading a book the other day and came across this question:  Which matters more:  intention or action?  It stopped me in my tracks, and I had to stop reading to ponder this question for a while.  The main character in the book was dealing with a crisis where he and the people around him were fighting for their lives.  The people had been tricked by someone they trusted implicitly into doing something they knew was wrong.  The main character was trying to save their environment and had to decide if he could work with and trust these people again who had “innocently” destroyed so much of what was loved and precious to him.

Now this life-or-death situation might not apply to us, but imagine this scenario: We’ve been asked to fire someone we know has been doing a good job.  The boss just doesn’t like the person and has been told by headquarters to cut his staff, and this employee has been chosen.  Now what?  Is the intention simply to meet headquarters’ requirements?  Or is the intention to use this opportunity to clean house of all those “troublemakers” or people we don’t get along with?  And does the intention justify the action? How do we square motive and our own ethical values with the task the boss has given us?

We all do it.  Rationalize, that is.woman using upraised hands to weigh imaginary items  Especially when we know the actions we are about to take are wrong, or at least incongruent with our own set of values, judgments or sense of fairness.  But here the question comes up intensely – which matters more: intention or action?  This question is about finding the courage to align our actions with our values.   How do we say “no” when it is appropriate?  How do we find the courage to take the action we know is appropriate, even if it’s the hardest thing we may ever have to do?  And how do we accept the decisions of others without punishing them or changing our opinions about them for doing what they consider to be right?

Who is affected here?  The obvious stakeholders are you, the employee and your boss.  But there are other, more subtle stakeholders.  The rest of your staff watches as you make this decision and from it they are reassessing their ability to trust you. The entire company may be impacted if this employee initiates a lawsuit. And if the proper procedures for terminating an employee are not completed, there are legal consequences as well.  Whew.  A real can of worms is opening here.

For those of you who’ve been following my writing for a while, you know I ask this question of right versus wrong a lot.  I feel I’m no closer to an answer now than when I first started asking.  For me “right” versus “wrong” is a matter of context, of facts, of information we know and experiences we’ve had, as well as the beliefs we hold as important.  What we decide to do is influenced by material things, like receiving a bonus or keeping our jobs to pay for the kids’ education, health insurance or living expenses.  So the right versus wrong answer changes depending on the situation.  The only thing that remains constant is the need to communicate clearly.  Even communication gets screwed up, though, when the stakes are high or the risk to us as individuals is serious.  We sacrifice accountability and integrity as emotions cloud our judgment.

It is hard to remain objective, accept accountability and align our intentions with our values and actions.  It is HARD.  But it is also one of the most important things we can do to maintain our own balance, fairness, justice, integrity and happiness.  So many people around us have just “opted out” of accountability, which for me includes making decisions and taking responsibility for our own actions.  It’s always somebody else’s fault.  Why do we have to assign blame?  It’s discouraging to watch people whine and complain about not getting things the way they want them without realizing that they created, or at least contributed to, that situation in the first place.  It is shocking to realize that we might be the only ones who care enough to agonize over the tough decisions we have to make.  And it is demoralizing to accept that people just don’t want to change until they are forced to.

So I ask again, which is more important – intention or action? This is something only you can answer for yourself.  But it is something you can also share with others to start a valuable conversation. The lessons you might learn from this conversation are priceless.

About the Author

After watching companies and clients struggle with ethical dilemmas, Marcy J. Maslov invented a business ethics board game to provide a practice arena for solving real-life ethical dilemmas. Marcy is founder and CEO of Empowerment Unlimited Coaching, LLC, a business coaching practice devoted to building strong, ethical leaders and entrepreneurs. She has extensive Fortune 500 and entrepreneurial background that includes implementation of Sarbanes-Oxley programs, creation of corporate ethics courses and forensic accounting. Marcy has lived or worked in over 20 countries, including France, Mexico and Canada. She is a Certified Professional Coactive Coach and CPA and has earned her MBA from Duke University. She can be reached at or