Do Leaders Treat Everyone Fairly?

By | June 19, 2018

[June 19, 2018]  I got asked this question by a college student yesterday and thought it appropriate to write about it today.  My answer to him was not simple and perhaps I made my comments overly complex but that is the nature of the concept of fairness.  Do leaders treat everyone fairly?

The answer is “no” but only if inappropriate criteria are used to define fairness.

Being fair is a great idea but the misuse of it and the distortion of its original meaning makes discussing it difficult.  Ideally, we treat everyone fairly in our daily transactions and in doing so, build trust and confidence in us as good leaders and moral human beings.  Sounds like the right thing to do … it also sounds like first-rate common sense.

The problem with the concept of fairness is that the meanings we attach to it vary greatly.  For example, when an employer from the United States treats someone fairly, they do so on the basis of giving equal opportunities for those who meet approved criteria (like experience and education) and reject inappropriate ones (like race and gender).  A socialist, on the other hand, treats people on the basis of equal outcomes where race, gender, etc. are the main criteria.

Fairness, I will argue, is a narrow concept.  It may mean treating people fairly based on economic, social, religious, racial, or a long list of specific, acceptable (or unacceptable) criteria.  To illustrate, take two people with everything about them being equal but one has an extensive criminal record for violent behavior and illegally selling drugs to minors.

If a job offer is for a security position, neither would be denied based on race, gender, religion, etc., but upon their past behavior regarding the law.  This is still a form of discrimination but acceptable both legally and ethically since the employer wants someone who can do the job that shows a long track record of being both loyal and trustworthy.

Was it fair to reject the other applicant who had a criminal record?  Some people would suggest that the person denied the job because of their criminal record was not treated fairly.  Some people today use criteria that in the past that would have meant being rejected.

My argument, however, has always been the same; be tough but fair (using socially-approved criteria).  To me, being fair means providing opportunities, resources, and guidance.  Being tough means holding them accountable for their actions.   Good leaders (those who are most effective and who do the right things) will sometimes not treat people fairly but only if improper criteria are used to define “fairness.”

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

29 thoughts on “Do Leaders Treat Everyone Fairly?

  1. Joe Omerrod

    Michael Pollan once said that “I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.” I will place here the idea that maybe it’s not a misuse of the concept of fairness as much as it is a misunderstanding of human behavior.

    1. Eddie Ray Anderson,

      I agree with you and think it also might be both affecting our misuse of “fairness.”

  2. Greg Heyman

    Well written for the junior leader who needs valuable lessons in how to be a good leader.

    1. Mr. T.J. Asper

      This is why I regularly use Gen Satterfield’s info in my classes. Great resource for younger people.

  3. Tracey Brockman

    Rudimentary part of good leadership. Thanks for a good, straightforward explanation.

  4. Roger Yellowmule

    None of this is surprising. When you have politicians constantly telling people that they are not treated fairly, it leaves wide open what the meaning is about. Bill Clinton once said that it depends on the meaning of the word “is.”

  5. Wilson Cox

    THis is what the entire immigration debate revolves around. Why they ask, are we not treating “undocumented” aliens like US citizens? Of course, they are breaking a federal law but to nutjobs in the media, that is totally irrelevant.

  6. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    I’m always interested in bringing up new ideas and this one (while not new) is certainly worthy of a good discussion. That discussion is exactly why we continue to see the misuse of the concept of fairness.

  7. Yusaf from Texas

    I find that this idea of confusing fairness with other things differs depending on where you live and the people around you. I don’t find it much in Texas (except for the Austin area) but do find it in Washinton state. Liberals often think this way and find themselves personally disappointed in their lives.

    1. Kenny Foster

      Yusaf, you are correct. In most Eastern European nations, they just laugh at us but in Western Europe, they don’t think the US goes far enough. Crazy!

  8. Gil Johnson

    I liked your article today, Gen Satterfield. Thank you for introducing it.

  9. Eric Coda

    Very interesting comments today. Thanks everyone for the discussion on fairness. I will add that this understanding has only come about with the Millenial generation. Is it that they were overly protected by their parents? Some have suggested this to be the cause. I would postulate that it is and that our large federal government only reinforces that belief.

    1. Douglas R. Satterfield Post author

      Eric, good observation. While there are a number of explanations, the idea that many folks today are overprotected growing up has had a number of unintended consequences; this being one of them. Thx.

  10. Shawn C. Stolarz

    I will suggest that the ideology that everyone is equal is in itself a suicide of the brain. No one can honestly believe that fairness means equal outcomes. If you give 10 people a million dollars, in one year nearly half of them will be bankrupt and poor, one will be dead, one will be in a mental hospital, and the rest will only be living sad lives.

  11. Jonathan B.

    Good morning everyone. I enjoyed this post today because it points to a common misunderstanding about fairness. Today, in a PC-American where right is wrong and upside-down is sideways, it is still a surprise to me that people would purposefully mistake fairness for sameness. I believe it’s a component of infantile thinking in adults. What other explanation could it be? I leave that answer to you!

  12. Andrew Dooley

    All good comments this morning that distinguish between treating people “fairly” and treating them “the same.” The difference is not subtle. The difference is about the fundamentals of how humans interact daily and how they learn to never take undue advantage of others.

  13. Army Captain

    In the military we say that we treat every one of our soldiers fairly. That doesn’t mean we treat them the same. People need to understand that there is a critical difference that good judgment dictates.

  14. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Good one, Max. I agree that most folks have absolutely no idea what fairness is about and that is the point of General Satterfield’s post today. Fairness is about not robbing others to benefit yourself.

  15. Max Foster

    Here is my favorite quote on fairness from a smart guy, Thomas Sowell: “Life in general has never been even close to fair, so the pretense that the government can make it fair is a valuable and inexhaustible asset to politicians who want to expand government.”

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