May 15

Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason | WT #52


How significant is the underlying motivation when it comes to performing virtuous acts? Is it okay to do the right thing for the wrong reason?

Let’s consider someone who chooses to practice honesty, not primarily to adhere to moral standards, but to enhance trust within their professional relationships. Or perhaps, someone exercises patience more to reduce personal stress than to foster understanding and tolerance towards others. These scenarios raise a crucial question: Are such virtues being practiced for the ‘wrong’ reasons?

Our minds can go many different directions on this question.

One direction might affirm the act itself as paramount, regardless of its initial motivation. As long as the individual recognizes that virtues carry both a professional and a personal dimension, with each aspect influencing the other, the initial intent may be secondary.

From this viewpoint, a person may start practicing a virtue like generosity for professional gain, such as to build a positive reputation. Along the way, however, they may discover a personal joy in giving, thus indirectly cultivating a more generous spirit within themselves. This perspective posits that the act of practicing virtue in itself bears the fruit of stronger character, regardless of the original motive.

Consider also the virtue of respect. Initially, someone might practice respect to avoid conflicts or to maintain a peaceful work environment. As they continue to demonstrate respect, they might find that this practice not only creates harmony in their professional life, but also enriches their personal relationships and fosters a deeper understanding of diverse viewpoints.

Now, we invite you to reflect: Is the act of practicing virtue what truly matters, or does the motivation behind it hold equal importance? Exploring this concept may provide valuable insights into how we perceive and practice virtue in our everyday lives.

To guide you further, we invite you to learn about the Four Temperaments. One way of explaining this ancient, time-tested concept can be describing our temperament as “…how we are wired, and how we tend to respond to external stimuli, environments and roles in life.” This is biologically based; it can’t be changed. And each of these temperaments have their unique strengths and weaknesses. To overcome these weaknesses, we practice what we call a challenge habit: also known as VIRTUES. In such cases, overcoming the weakness of our own temperament (which we can help you discover!) becomes the motivation for “doing the right things.”

So we are still left with the question we opened with: Is it okay to do the right thing for the wrong reason? 

Perhaps “right versus wrong” is the not the best way to compare. What we are really getting at is “altruism versus selfishness.” And in many cases, it may not matter. We are all, flawed, fallen human beings. With but two exceptions, no human has ever walked the earth with a completely pure, altruistic heart.

However, it is not uncommon for God to use ALL of our inner motivations (good and bad; altruistic and selfish) to point us in the direction He wants to lead us: down the Path to Greatness, and of becoming the best version of ourselves.

About the author 

Darren Smith

Darren Smith is Co-Founder of the Authentic Leadership Institute. He is a native Texan and a graduate of Dallas Jesuit and Texas A&M University. Over the past 25 years, Darren has visited 35 countries and led 100 strategy programs. He and his wife have five children.


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