By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D

In 1972 the Union Pacific Railroad founded Operation Lifesaver, dedicated to increasing awareness of rail safety, and initiated the “Stop, Look and Listen” campaign. As a middle school student, I recall being inundated with brochures, magazine advertisements and public service announcements urging everyone to “Stop, Look and Listen” at railroad crossings to avoid being hit by a speeding locomotive.

I vividly recalled those warnings during SLLF’s Ethics and Leadership Summit (Oct. 9-11, 2014, Jackson Hole, Wyoming) as I listened to two former state legislators and a former Federal Prosecutor talk about the ethical mistakes made by many public officials. These mistakes were just as fatal to their careers and their reputations as that train was to the oblivious driver in those 1970’s public service announcements. As I pondered the many lessons of this timely conference, it occurred to me that many of the good people who had made bad decisions could have avoided their mistakes had they just heeded a variation of this old warning: “Stop, THINK and Listen.”

Stop. Whenever you have to make a decision that has an ethical or moral dimension, stop and make sure you are making the right decision for the right reasons. Stop performing mental gymnastics to justify a bad decision. Stop rationalizing bad decisions. Stop protecting your colleague out of misguided loyalty or for political gain. Stop blaming others for your ethical lapses. Stop hiding behind the letter of the law when you or someone else has done (or is about to do) something you know is morally wrong or even has the appearance of being wrong. Stop using your position to punish those who disagree with you on matters of conscience or policy. Stop looking for plausible deniability. As a leader, you should know what is going on around you and you have to have the courage to say no when it is easier to say yes.

Think. Every decision or action you take has ethical and moral consequences and often those consequences are not obvious. Think before you act! Instead of looking for others to blame to justify an unethical act, take personal responsibility and think about how to do the right thing. Think about the consequences of your actions. Think about the impact of your decision on key stakeholders—colleagues, family, friends and the public at large. Think about all the options available to you. Think about which of those options allows you to do the most good and the least harm. Think about how your decision will be perceived by others who watch everything you do. Think about the reality that everyone is watching you.

Listen. After you have stopped and thought, you need to wait and listen. You need to gather as much information as possible. Listen to all the stakeholders – everyone who will be impacted by the decision. Listen to mentors who have been in your position before and may have faced similar decisions. Listen to legal counsel that is trained in such matters. Listen to trusted friends and advisors who have no stake in the political game, even if (and maybe because) they tell you what you don’t want to hear. Listen to those who were your friends long before you “made it” and who will be there when you are no longer on top.

There is no foolproof way to avoid making ethical mistakes. Many of the choices and actions you take cannot be readily separated into “right or wrong.” Just as the driver of the speeding car featured in the public service announcements could avoid a fatal collision with a speeding locomotive if he would only “stop, look and listen,” you can avoid committing career ending or reputation ruining unethical or immoral acts if you just “stop, think and listen.”