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Stand for principles, but know them first

My brother wisely under stands that it’s a mistake to dismiss all of the bromides and wisdom you find on motivational plaques and other business aids. The other day he sent me this one he found in a promotional brochure. It hit me where I live:

They may see the good you do as self-serving

Continue to do good

They may see your generosity as grandstanding

Continue to be generous

They may see your warm and caring spirit as a sign of weakness

Continue to be warm and caring

For you see, in the end it is between you and God, it was never between you and them anyway.

I find unbelievable power in those few words, but I find a terrific challenge, too. There are countless ways to express the same truths. “You can’t please all the people all the time” has always been my favorite. We live in a judgmental society and almost everyone stands willing to tell us our mistakes and errors.

People love to find fault with the successful and powerful, and there always seems to be a limit on how “good” we should be in the eyes of others. Most of us probably remember “the goody two-shoes” personalities getting picked on in elementary school, but the ugly truth is that syndrome also affects adults. We often get more than a little uncomfortable with really nice people who always seem to do the right thing at the right time. We say they “are too good to be true,” and we just know they have an Achilles’ heel somewhere. We often exult when that failing is exposed.

Too many of us hate to stand out from the crowd and we push toward the mediocre because our society punishes the really good people. We want to hang back and avoid being judged. We get so concerned about how we are perceived that we fail to live up to our own personal standards and values for fear people will find us “spooky” or “uppity.”

If we go out front, if we advocate for values, fairness and ethical behavior we are bound to be judged. If doing the right thing matters to us, then we are going to suffer the attacks that all moral leaders do. And we are inevitably going to polarize. The people who admire us will line up on one side and our critics will line up on the other. If we are particularly fortunate the sides will even out over time.

It is discombobulating and threatening to know that your courage and commitment can make enemies as well as friends. A friend of mine put it well when she said, “It’s a new thought for me to picture myself as the cause of polarization — like I’m the prow of a boat, cleaving a wake … (I am) not afraid to cut new waters; and to live that bravely is such a high value with me that it never occurred to me that the water might have a different opinion about it!”

The water does indeed have a different opinion about it, but that doesn’t mean we should waver from our convictions. We simply need to understand that our courage will not be met with universal approval. We will have to withstand brickbats, attacks and scorn.

But as the sage who wrote that message on the plaque understands so well, it’s not really about us and our critics. It’s about something bigger and grander. Some of us call that God.

Tip for your search: Many of us say we stand for some key principles, but can you name them? Write down the things that are so important to you that you will stand up for them. They might be faith, freedom, generosity, reciprocity or honesty, or a host of other key values. Don’t leave them to chance. Write them down and carry them with you.

Resource for your search: “Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time” by Margaret J. Wheatley (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005)