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Absolute Guy In A Relative World May 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , ,

I like absolutes. Yes or no. Black or white. Right or wrong. No room for debate or equivocating; the answer is patently obvious to all concerned.

This is why computing is so appealing to me.  Strip away all the layers of abstraction, and computing is about getting a sequence of 1s and 0s in the right order.  If you get the right order, it’s correct.  Drop or flip a bit, and it’s not.  You may think you’re reading this blog; in fact, you are viewing an abstract representation of several billion bits arranged to appear as text on your screen.  If even one bit were wrong, these words would not be correct.  Simple: right or wrong.

Leadership is rarely about such absolutes.  When dealing with people and plans, there are a million shades of gray that must be weighed and blended to reach decisions.  From strategic planning to tactical choices, we have to function within a spectrum of relative values that are open to interpretation.

In many cases, relative judgments make life easier.  We often talk about being “good enough,” about applying the 80/20 rule, about knowing when to quit and move on to the next project.  In these cases, there is often a law of diminishing returns that make achieving an absolute result more expensive than the benefit derived.  Knowing when to stop is an important aspect of leadership, too.

With so much of our world based on a relative scale, it can be tempting to let everything shift to a relative scale.  I think it’s important to remember that some things are never relative.  Things like ethics, morals, trust, integrity, and reputation should never be viewed on a relative scale.  We should hold ourselves to absolute standards and never relax in our desire to achieve an absolute result in those areas.  Note that this doesn’t mean that we won’t have lapses, but those lapses can take a long time to overcome.  A tarnished reputation may take years to be restored, but the standard of a “good reputation” should not change; we simply need to work harder to achieve that standard.

I also have certain things, related to my IT background, that I always judge on an absolute scale. Data integrity is not a relative issue for me.  Data is either right or wrong, pure or corrupt.  Systems are either up or down, available or not.  Software features either work, or they don’t.  I tend to drive my team crazy with this stuff, but that doesn’t deter me from getting on my soapbox every now and again.

I find that I get a lot of reactions when I express this view.  Some people, it seems, will gauge almost anything on a relative scale.  There seems to be a general aversion to absolute anything. What do you hold to an absolute scale?  What do you shift to relative judgment?  Does it matter?


1. Long Huynh - May 19, 2009

Another insightful post. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the absolute standards that we should hold ourselves to when it comes to ethics, morals, trust, integrity, and reputation.
By a happy coincidence, I watched last night (i.e. a few hours after your post) the “24” character of President Allison Taylor making the same remark in the season finale episode (with regard to her decision whether or not to cover up her daughter’s criminal action).

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