Do the right thing vs. Don’t do anything wrong

There is a fantastic “smartest-guy-in-the-room” scene from the movie Apollo 13. U.S. astronauts are stranded in space aboard a damaged spacecraft; chaotic discussion ensues until “John” emerges, confident and clean-cut, to point the way: It’s about power. Without power nothing else works. Conserve power and they have a chance.

Fast forward through the great scene where they construct an air filter using only on-board materials (Relax, they had duct tape). Failure was not an option and the mission succeeds. The astronauts return to Earth.

Such scenes can be heartwarming in that the person who knew what they were talking about (the expert) was able to convince important people (boss and group) to do right thing, and the result was success. In the context of an obvious crisis, the “right thing” becomes clear. In many instances, such disagreements as whether or not we even have a crisis (e.g. climate change) make it very difficult to have the “right-thing” discussion, let alone how we will judge success.

This week at Ryerson University, I attended an event that explored this idea of “doing right thing,” and also waded into who are the “right people” to be doing it, namely leaders in government and in corporations. The entire talk is here.

Here are some of my high points:

Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page described his role, which struck me as similar to “John” in the Apollo 13 clip. It was his job to generate good information for decision makers. He did not have the luxury of operating in an obvious crisis, which is the lot of anyone doing 75-year financial projections. His overriding mission (e.g. success) was: “we want to have a prosperous country.”

Note: In his commentary, Sheldon Levy aptly names such a clear focus a personal “North Star.”

Kevin spoke of standing on principle, and I got the sense that he would have been able to defend every single action that he took as contributing to “a prosperous country” or identifying the risk of actions that threatened that pursuit. For him, this was the divide between right and wrong, which appeared to give focus to his role and purpose. This was not about securing his personal career, so there would be no pandering to partisan influences. His calling was higher. He and his team sought out experts to get accurate costing on plans that would cost a lot of money. Things that cost a lot of money have a greater chance of impacting long-term prosperity. The logic is unflappable.

He seemed genuinely surprised at the propensity of elected officials to make decisions without understanding the impact. If a reasonable person faced a policy decision that brought long-term implications (e.g. changes in court sentencing that would see more people serve time in penitentiaries), this reasonable person would want to know how much it cost, wouldn’t they?

It turns out the answer was sometimes, “No,” which is a natural human response.

  • When you take the student loans for education, do you really want to know how long you will be debt-laden?
  • When you buy the membership to the gym, do you really want to know who little you will use it?
  • When you celebrate with a steak dinner, red wine and cheesecake, do you really want to know how long you will have jog to burn it all off?

He also described an environment of fear, which was echoed in Maryantonett Flumian’s comments. She seemed to be asking: “When did ‘do the right thing’ give way to ‘don’t do anything wrong’?” She lamented a shift from internally driven principles and ethics to externally imposed rules and regulations. Will we return to these good old days?

Chris MacDonald at Ryerson curated an exceptional event. These conversations will continue and have as much implication for individuals as they do for the governments, corporations and other organizations that employ people. We look forward to the continued dialogue.