In times of crisis, we have high expectations of our business leaders. We want our business leaders to take their responsibility, make decisions and resolve dilemmas. At such times, the main quality business leaders must possess is a willingness to get their hands dirty, because they will be asked to make decisions that will harm people, no matter what they decide.

Experts have listed in the media many qualities business leaders should display in these times of crisis. Now more than ever, business leaders must have faith in their employees who are working from home, show empathy and be humble, focused and self-confident. Other experts tell us that business leaders should now be purpose driven, accountable and long-term oriented.

It is true that all these qualities are relevant, but they would seem to suggest that being a leader in these times mainly requires one to focus on slightly different things than usual. After all, aren’t all the aforementioned qualities vital in normal times, too? If we wish to steer our business leaders in the right direction, we must do justice to the situation in which they currently find themselves, i.e. a crisis.

At odds

What characterises a crisis is nasty dilemmas that require those in charge to get their hands dirty. When such ‘dirty-hands dilemmas’ arise, fundamental values and principles are at odds with each other. When there is an extreme shortage of something, when emergencies arise and when our survival is at stake, security is at odds with privacy, honesty is at odds with solidarity, and employment is at odds with continuity. At the same time, on a more practical level, maintaining one’s business relations with a loss-making organisation is at odds with financial security, stopping production for the sake of one’s employees’ health is at odds with one’s customers’ needs, and releasing one’s trade secrets for the sake of people’s good health is at odds with one’s own autonomy.

The problem of dirty hands is a concept derived from political science that revolves around the question as to whether politicians’ violations of moral principles are justified in times of war. It has been shown that in certain circumstances, it is acceptable or even commendable for politicians to collaborate with the enemy to save people in hiding, or to kill innocent citizens to win a war.

Rights violations

The problem of dirty hands is useful to companies in times of crisis. It demonstrates that all sorts of dilemmas are arising in which there is no such thing as a ‘good’ decision. Whatever choice is made, principles are infringed, rights are violated and people are hurt. Hands are dirtied no matter what is decided. You have no choice but to lay off people, allow other companies to go into receivership or disappoint customers.

The advantage of thinking in terms of ‘dirty hands’ is that it helps executives, board members, and managers come to terms with the painful decisions they have to make. It actually opens the door to such decisions because they have to be made. Leaders must not be blamed for getting their hands dirty; they are to be commended for doing so. After all, that’s what leaders are for.

Trying hard not to shirk one’s duties

This is why true leaders will get their hands dirty in these times of crisis. They are willing to make painful decisions and explain why they have made those decisions, like Philips CEO Frans van Houten recently did on a TV show, where he explained in clear terms how Philips is forced to make painful choices if demand for the company’s ventilators outstrips supply.

Viewing leaders in such a light provides us with a different perspective on their decision-making process. Problems of dirty hands are complex, new and far-reaching. For this reason, decision-making processes are fraught with uncertainty, doubts, arguments, emotions, shame and pain. Not because leaders want to hurt people, but precisely because they seek to do the right thing. It is eating them up inside, and it breaks their hearts. They end up having sleepless nights, as a captivating Frans van Houten explained on TV.

Increasing one’s own power

Naturally, true leaders do not abuse the idea that getting your hands dirty is justified in certain circumstances. Leaders are not allowed to get their hands dirty in order to increase their own power, although Machiavelli might have felt differently about that. Nor should leaders engage in a dirty-hands competition. Having no qualms whatsoever about getting one’s hands dirty does not make one a good leader.

However, an ability to get one’s hands dirty is a leadership skill. This being the case, we should not expect our leaders to do the impossible and try to keep everyone happy. On the contrary, we should expect our leaders to resolve dilemmas, because that is the only way we can overcome this crisis.

Muel Kaptein, Partner KPMG Integrity and Professor Business Ethics RSM Erasmus University

A shortened version of this article was published (in Dutch) in Trouw on 15 April 2020.