Who’s more depraved, the guy who claims to be a do-gooder while actually cheating to get ahead, or the political player who snitches on him to look like a do-gooder when in reality he just wants the other guy out of the way?

Of course that’s a false ethical dilemma since you don’t have to behave like either of those pathetic losers. If only ethics were so clear cut in the real world where things aren’t quite so black and white, right?

Contrary to what you might think, ethics is pretty straightforward. Once you take your own selfish motives out of the equation, clarify the goals and assumptions and examine the details (the devil is always lurking there) it becomes a lot easier to do the right thing.

I’ve never actually come across an unresolvable ethical dilemma, but I have come across plenty of executives who’ve gotten themselves so wrapped up in an issue that they imagine a dilemma that isn’t really there. Usually they’re just too close to it and lack perspective.

Take the age-old question, do the ends justify the means? A Machiavellian dilemma if there ever was one, right? Not really. Once you gain clarity on the specifics of the situation the answer always becomes crystal clear.  

You probably don’t remember that Cisco was once the most valuable company on Earth, having ballooned through countless acquisitions in the dot-com bubble. When the bubble began to burst, then CEO John Chambers came to the horrifying realization that the company was in big trouble.

The dilemma was clear: layoffs would be a brutal blow, but no layoffs could be even worse in the end.

He got his management team together offsite and, after two agonizing days, mapped out plans for the first layoff in the company’s history. Not only that, they concluded that the best way to weather the collapse and come out of it as quickly and healthily as possible would be to cut once and cut deep.

Gut-wrenching as the decision was, it turned out to be the right thing to do. The ends did justify the means.

Contrast that with Sun Microsystems’ death by a thousand cuts – I think there were 11 or 12 rounds of restructuring/layoffs over several years – which slowly decimated the company until it was ultimately acquired for peanuts by Oracle. Meanwhile Cisco remains a strong company to this day.

We always hear about the horrors of layoffs but the only way to be sure to avoid them is to never get out ahead of your skis or take big risks that may prove overly aggressive in the end. If you ran such a company you’d end up with anemic growth, lost market share and shrinking profits. Ultimately you’d end up running it into the ground.

We always hear about ethical dilemmas, but once you objectively and selflessly analyze the situation, the dilemma disappears and the right course of action magically materializes.

Think I’m wrong? Think you have a true ethical dilemma? I love a good challenge. Go for it, we’re all ears.

P.S. And no, the Kentucky Derby was not the source of inspiration for this post.

Image credit Robert Yonas / Flickr