In my previous post, I took a closer look at the first two of 10 leadership principles that guided my thinking, management philosophy and actions during my career with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This time, I’m diving deeper on #3: Test your thinking against your moral and ethical compass.

Important work brings difficult decisions. And given the flat nature of government, leaders must create coalitions to build support and advance priorities. Along the way, leaders face difficult choices: Where do we compromise, and where do we draw the line and take a principled stand? In the public sector, we’re spending taxpayers’ money, which necessarily brings additional scrutiny.

Whenever I faced one of these difficult calls, I used these three questions to guide my decision-making:

  • Does the idea make good business sense?

    Before evaluating something from a government angle, I would first ask, “Should government – as a business – undertake this initiative?” Regardless of the politics, government leaders are fiduciaries of taxpayer money. Therefore, it’s important to consider whether and how an idea will further the best interest of the citizens and serve as a good use of taxpayer resources. Will it increase efficiency? Does it help us keep pace with technology? Does it better mitigate business risk?

  • Is it legal?

    No, I am not talking about committing any crimes. However, when I was serving in government, the rules of the road were determined in statute by the Massachusetts General Court (a.k.a. the Legislature). The breadth and depth of my authority and accountability as Comptroller were also outlined in statute. My management team and I further defined the role in regulations and policy. While I generally had flexibility to modify or grant exceptions to policy, I could not do so with statute. If the answer to an idea was “No, this is not within my statutory authority,” I did not always stop. There were other paths – for example, seeking someone else in the government with authority or requesting a legislative change. But I always held myself to the obligation to ensure I had a reasonable basis to assert I was working within my authority. I took an oath to uphold the laws and constitution of the Commonwealth, and I never forgot that promise.

  • Would it pass “the Boston Globe test”?

    Most decisions I made would never be visible to the media or worthy of their attention. Even so, I always challenged myself and my teams to answer the question: “If your decision were challenged, and that challenge appeared in the Boston Globe, would you hold your head high as others read your justification on the front page?” If you cringed at the idea of such public scrutiny, it was time to rethink! Note here that the test is not about acceptance by the media or even the public, but rather about your own comfort with a decision. While it may seem simplistic, applying this lens to the pros and cons helped bring a moral and ethical focus to the decision. I also found that it led to a discussion of the fiduciary role and the higher level of transparency required of public officials. When appropriate, it would lead to someone pushing the “pause” button before we proceeded with a more expedient route.

How do you bear the heavy weight of making decisions as a government leader? Please reach out to me with your thoughts. And stay tuned for my next post, which will explore leadership lesson #4: Don’t expend political capital. Invest it. and #5: Assume the best in others (until they prove you wrong).

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Marty Benison

Senior Manager – Public Sector, North America

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