Job One for Leaders: Doing the Right Thing

Jan 24, 2019

By Sander A. Flaum

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”—Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), 26th U.S. President.

Scores of books are published annually on something we call leadership. They’re penned by academic giants like Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis, great CEOs like A.G. Lafley, and sports legends like Duke University’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. I wrote a best-seller called The 100 Mile Walk…A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership. Those of us who aspire to be better tomorrow than we are today can learn something from any of these books.

However, there is one lesson so simple; that it’s often overlooked in the leadership tomes. Observing great leaders, the one defining characteristic I’ve noticed is that these fine men and women all strive to do the right thing. Here’s an illustrative example: Sir Harry Evans, editor-at-large of The Week and his wife Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, convinced the owners of the RMS Queen Mary 2 to host a benefit for the American Institute of Stuttering aboard the ship. They worked tirelessly for months to make certain the event was a success and people responded in a remarkable way for this important cause. Some famous stutterers were invited: Jack Welch of G.E. fame, John Stossel of 20/20, singer Carly Simon, and Kenyon Martin of the Denver Nuggets. Together they raised $1 million for the study and treatment of stuttering. When it came to doing the right thing, for sure they did.

As the irreplaceable commodity time marches on, each of us encounters many opportunities, both small and large, to do the right thing. We cross paths with the down and out who ask for spare change, strangers who need directions, family, friends and employees who seek our help. Leaders experience these moments in life as often as everyone else. It is what is made of these quotidian opportunities that added together shape a lifetime.

An example from recent headlines shows us that merely giving away a vast sum of money is not the hallmark of greatness. For example, in July the New York Times reported that real estate magnate Leona Helmsley not only left millions more to her dog than to her grandchildren, she also left her fortune, estimated at between $5 billion and $8 billion, to the care of dogs. I’m not sure how to classify that arrangement, but it doesn’t quite fit the definition of “leaders doing the right thing.” Earmarking her vast estate to literally “go to the dogs” is not especially admirable.

On the other hand, Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, has given over half of his net worth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is working to wipe out polio, H.I.V, and other devastating illnesses around the globe. That’s $29 billion given and going, by the way. Warren Buffett followed Gates’s example, donating $37 billion to the Gates Foundation, the largest charitable donation in history. The BBC reported, “Mr. Gates said it was Mr. Buffett's support for philanthropy which had persuaded him to set up the foundation in the first place.” Not only did these two business giants inspire each other to the highest levels of personal benevolence, they each maintain an ongoing interest in the foundation’s administration and how the work will be carried forward.

There are ways that each of us can tap into our own founts of integrity and goodness and channel it to others with far-reaching results. My mom was a wonderful mentor, leader, and role model for me. She was also a great baseball coach—just one of her many talents. The lessons I learned from Rose Flaum were many, but the one that seemed to stick in my mind throughout the years was “try and do something good every day.” When I think of my mom, I reflect on that as her legacy to all who knew her.

I also learned something about doing the right thing from Bill Steere, former CEO of Pfizer. He spoke about the “Performance Review.” Most of us typically spend one minute telling a subordinate about the good things she’s doing and the next 30 on what she needs to improve. Steere taught me and others that people don’t really change that much, so it’s most productive and motivating to focus on developing people’s positive attributes rather than focusing on their weaknesses.

Extend this philosophy to the world and watch what happens, not just around you, but to you. The next time someone asks for help, consciously choose to see the potential for good. Do the right thing, not the so-called “correct” thing or the easiest thing.

In the end, there is only the doing from moment to moment, for leadership is action, not words. Do the right thing; it will make you a better person and certainly, a better leader.


ABC News interview with Bill Gates by George Stephanopoulos,

American Journalism Review (Tina Brown),

BBC News, “Buffett donates $37bn to Charity,” June 26, 2006,

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,

Duke University, (Sir Harry Evans), “Katie Couric to Emcee First-Ever American Institute for Stuttering Gala…”

The New York Times, “Helmsley Left Dog Billions in Her Will,” by Stephanie Strom, July 2, 2008

Theodore Roosevelt quote:

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at [email protected].