Leadership and the Moral Compass

by  Jennifer V. Miller  |  Leadership Coaching

As a leader, when you encounter a team member whose moral compass seems to be pointing in the wrong direction, how do you handle it? Early in my career, my compass got a little off track and I’m forever grateful to the leader who helped me regain direction.

My first job out of college was with a department store chain based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  A man named Mike, who was the regional director of human resources for the retailer, was one of the first mentors in my professional life.  He was an unassuming man with a rapier-sharp wit who showed me how to lead with character. Mike taught by encouragement and humor, not by pontificating. I can still clearly recall a phone conversation that could have gone very wrong, but because of Mike’s leadership skill, turned into a lesson I carry with me today.

Here’s what happened. I was the Assistant Personnel Manager for one of the retailer’s suburban department stores, which had a restaurant within the store. The restaurant’s manager Al called me to say that he’d seen one of his employees taking a glass of soda pop from the restaurant after the stored closed. Evidently, this employee had a history of helping himself to soda pop and had been warned that if he did it again, he’d be fired. So Al was calling me to ask if it was time to fire him.

My boss, the store’s Personnel Manager, was on vacation so I called Mike to bring him into the loop. I explained the situation and asked for counsel. Mike said that I was to begin the termination process.

I was surprised. Firing a guy for taking a glass of soda pop seemed so extreme. “Mike, really? We’re going to fire him?” Mike reminded me that the employee had been warned (in writing) of the consequences of his actions. Still, I persisted—“Mike, it just seems so unfair—can’t we give him one more chance?”

“Well, I’ll tell you what . . .” Mike said in that low-key way he had. “What about this? How about if we let all 200 of the associates at your store help themselves to whatever item they want in the store? Would that be a good way to run the business?”

That put it into perspective very quickly.

It wasn’t the dollar value of what the employee stole, it was the fact that he stole from the company.

No lecturing about protecting company assets, no reminders about our obligations as human resources managers. Just a simple question that brought the issue into crystal clear focus: to act with integrity means to do so all the time, regardless of the relative weight of the infraction.

Why does this lesson stay with me all these years later?

Mike held up a mirror to my integrity, but he did so in a non-threatening way. Even though we were discussing whether or not to fire an employee, the subtext to the conversation was, “Jennifer, what do you stand for?” The needle of my moral compass was off track that day; Mike helped me get it pointing back in the right direction. And he did so without shaming me, which is incredibly important when dealing with the sensitive subject of someone’s integrity.

When you are faced with helping a colleague examine beliefs that underpin their integrity, do so with positive intention and kind regard, but by all means do so. To do any less would be to fall short in your role as a leader. Not only does their integrity depend on you taking action, but your integrity depends upon it as well.


photo credit: istockphoto.com

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About The Author

Articles By jennifer-miller
Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Joy Guthrie  |  27 Jun 2012  |  Reply

I had a very similar experience as a young manager in a phone company. The team member was a much loved member of the team by many, yet there was a large number of personal international long distance calls charged to the company. When placed on warning, one of the employee’s tactics was to attempt to appeal to the the rest of the team – because, after all, we were a phone company. The final discussion was not pleasant and still haunts me today, even though I had strong counseling from HR about the action that must be taken to resolve the situation.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  27 Jun 2012  |  Reply


Thanks for sharing your leadership story. One of the sub-themes for both of our stories is that of personal choice. Both of the employees who eventually lost their jobs did so because they chose to continue behavior that the company did not sanction. And they were warned of the consequences. It was difficult for me to see someone lose a job over something so trivial. . .but over the years I’ve learned that I can’t take any form of responsibility for someone else’s behavior, painful as their choices might be.

Joan Koerber-Walker  |  27 Jun 2012  |  Reply

Excellent post and life lesson Jennifer. Thank you for sharing it.


Jennifer V. Miller  |  27 Jun 2012  |  Reply


How nice to reconnect with you on the Lead Change blog. Thanks for the kind words.

Mark Silet  |  08 Jul 2012  |  Reply

The post reminds me of the saying “If you dont know what you stand for, you will fall for anything”. Leaders need to know their values and be willing to take a stand on them and, to take a page from The Leadership Challenge, then model they way for others to folllow.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  09 Jul 2012  |  Reply


I’ve always appreciated the “If you don’t know what you stand for” quote. Thanks for putting it into the context of this post!

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