You Can Be Wrong, When You’re Right

By | April 25, 2018

[April 25, 2018]  This may seem counterintuitive, but it is possible – as a leader – you can be wrong, when you’re right.  This is true even when standing up for the highest of moral values.  Leaders must be aware of this and consciously take note of possible negative consequences.

We need first to remember that “right” and “wrong” is often in the eyes of the beholder; being heavily influenced by one’s culture.  Yes, morality no longer fits into the box we created since the beginning of human civilization.  But for our discussion today, that is not what I’m discussing.

My emphasis today will be on doing the right thing and yet being wrong at the same time.  This is not something so simple as doing the right thing and hurting someone’s feelings (that is not wrong in the true sense of things).  Here is a short story to illustrate.

A few years ago while I was in South Korea, three U.S. Air Force sergeants were arrested by the Korean National Police (KNP) for “assaulting” a South Korean man.  This is a serious charge and includes jail time if convicted.  It would also mean the end of their careers as airmen in the U.S. Air Force.

But were the sergeants wrong?  In the eyes of the KNP, the assault on a citizen of their country was an open and shut case.  They had violated several laws and were jailed briefly while the U.S. Embassy was contacted.  To the KNP, the sergeants were wrong.

What was the back-story?  The three sergeants were walking in downtown Seoul, looking for a place to eat.  Each had been in South Korea for over six months, so they knew the culture and how to properly respect the people and laws.  While walking in front of a restaurant they saw a man beating on a woman.  They jumped to her defense, pulling the man off of her and preventing a savage beating.  They were right to assist her.

The problem?  It was the woman’s husband and he is allowed to beat her if he so wishes.  Of course, they didn’t know it was her husband; they only knew they had to protect her.  There were witnesses and so the KNP was called to arrest them.

The three USAR sergeants were wrong, despite the fact they were right.

Leaders who are aware of such contradictions must communicate this to their folks as part of a formal education campaign.  Using examples, such as this one, will make it much easier to understand and apply in day-to-day circumstances.

You can be wrong, when you’re right.

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.

36 thoughts on “You Can Be Wrong, When You’re Right

  1. Wilson Cox

    Most of us learn this as young children. Like when we are blamed for hitting our sister when we really were protecting her from bullies. As adults we should remember that invaluable lesson.

  2. Lynn Pitts

    How so very true. Anyone who has spent any time in the US military will tell you that is one of the main principles of military life.

  3. Rober Yellowmule

    Good article. I’m new here and thanks for bringing up such good topics. I read earlier posts and they are, to me, very informative.

  4. Delf A. "Jelly" Bryce

    It would be surprising for most of you to know that within major US government law enforcement agencies, this sort of thing happens all the time. People trying (legitimately trying) to do the right thing both morally and legally yet still get themselves into trouble for “doing the wrong thing.” Yet, they did the right thing but it was, for some obscure legal reason, wrong.

  5. Shawn C Stolarz

    One’s culture does have influence here. I find that Asian country cultures have less of this conflict than Western nations. Why? I have no idea. But I want to also point out that this means, internally to any society, that there will be differences too.

  6. Georgie M.

    When right is wrong and when wrong is right. Sounds like a movie. In all seriousness, this is a problem (albeit mostly for younger folks) that is a challenge for us all. The solution is to have sound values and a strong moral backgrounding in our experiences. One can overcome anyone who sees your actions as wrong when you know what you’ve done is the right thing.

  7. Janna Faulkner

    This whole issue is not new for humanness has not changed. See the link for several passages in the Bible that say exactly what Gen Satterfield is saying (just different words). For example, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” – Isaiah 5:20. I’m not a Bible-thumper so don’t get me wrong. It is worth visiting old advice, for people are and always will be people with their faults and imperfections.

    1. Anita

      As usual Janna, you are on target with this comment.

  8. Dennis Mathes

    When the chips are down (like when your boss accuses you of wrongdoing when you’re right), just remember that all that effort you put into making yourself a good person (ethically and morally) will pay off in the long run. It may be hard in the short-term but keep that in mind.

  9. Joey Holmes

    My dad say, think smart act smart. That is the solution. Cheers!

  10. Greg Heyman

    As a leader, you need to be aware of this as Gen Satterfield has noted. As a husband or wife, you also need to be aware and be aware of family values. Ultimately this is about values and what makes society function. Just my opinion.

  11. Jerry Jones

    The idea that our boss (or anyone for that matter) may see what we do as wrong while we are doing right, is an interesting one. I will suggest that open communications is one way to overcome some of the problems here; the moral vs legal issue would gain too.

  12. Mark Evans

    Good article today for discussion. I like the idea that you can do right but be wrong. Why? Because that is the type of discussion (or argument) that stimulates my thinking. Too many times in my life I had to chose betw doing what was right and what might be wrong. Whether it was my boss or my wife, what I did mattered.

  13. Danny Burkholder

    Yes, perception does matter and especially if your boss is the one who believes you’ve done something wrong.

  14. Bryan Lee

    The issue here does not all boil down to morality vs legality. It can be as Watson B. shows us that it may mean a perception of your boss or some internal organizational issue. Cognitive dissonance anyone?

  15. Watson B.

    I was working in my job one day when my boss came in to say that I’d screwed up on a legal contract for a new client. The wording was rather standard so I asked what the problem was about it. He said that I had failed to include an indemnification clause (standard stuff). But when I explained that the “new client” was actually an internal part of our own organization, that it was not required. Legally I was right but in my boss’s eyes, I was wrong.

  16. Tracey Brockman

    This is part of learning to be a good human being. Understanding that not everything is black and white actually makes us a better person and more resilient.

    1. Gil Johnson

      I agree and will add that those who fail to understand this have little to gain elsewhere.

  17. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Teaching kids make you more focused on the events that happen around us. In this case, I have always taught that if there were ever a choice between doing the right thing morally and the right thing legally, their choice will say a lot about their character. For those that choose the “wrong” answer, we discuss why.

  18. Yusaf from Texas

    So true. When I was young I thought this was crazy but now I both understand and have a better feeling about it. My choices are clear.

  19. Kenny Foster

    For junior leaders, I think they will be befuddled by this post but should not be. There are not just cultural differences in how we involve ourselves in our day to day lives but there are contradictions in law and morality. No surprise that moral debates are both emotional and intellectual; the fact they are ongoing tells us about those contradictions.

  20. Darryl Sitterly

    Hooray for the US Air Force sergeants for doing the right thing, even if it was legally wrong. This is why we are humans; we make judgments that are often under duress and must live with the consequences. I don’t think there would be any USAF officer who would not support the 3 sergeants in this case.

  21. Dale Paul Fox

    Nothing fits within our mental box so well as what we were taught as right and wrong. The problem? There is often no clear boundary between the two. My friends call it the “gray zone” of morality. As humans, it is expected that we will be in that gray zone and have to make choices that can produce unexpected and unfortunate results. This is part of being human and thus we must learn to accept the punishment with the good. These three sergeants should stand proud of what they did regardless of the legal outcome.

  22. Army Captain

    Ah yes, a problem that we must all endure occasionally. There is a choice, often enough between what is legally right and what is morally right. I believe this is what you refer to here.

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