I just finished watching the first season of the Game of Thrones one more time, in preparation for a course I am teaching in January: Ethics, Leadership, and the Game of Thrones. I had missed one fascinating scene the first time I watched the show. Jon had just found out about his father's death and was eager to go to war alongside his brother Robb. Maester Aemon, the Maester of Castle Black. Watch the scene below.
Maester Targaryen starts by asking Jon why the brothers of the Night's Watch do not get married or bear children. "Love is the death of duty," he explains. Duty is easy when "there is no cost to it."
What fascinates me about this scene is the battle every leader must fight between fairness and love. Imagine, for example, that you are asked to enforce a particular rule at work. A person close to you - a close friend, a family member, someone you love - will suffer if you enforce the rule. If you fail to enforce the rule, you are guilty of favoritism. What would you do?
In the abstract, most people would say "oh, I would be fair." But would we really? Under what conditions? What if the consequences for the person you love were serious? What if your loved one would lose their job? And what if you had a way out?
One additional glitch: We are superb at rationalizing unfair decisions. In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt explains that people seldom reach moral decisions rationally. Instead, people have instant moral intuitions. Reason becomes important later, as we brilliantly defend the decision we've already made.
Fortunately, there is a solution. We can reach stronger decisions as a team. My reason may not help me make a morally defensible decision, but could help someone else. In the scene above, six people helped Jon stay true to his oath: four friends, the Lord Commander Mormont, and Maester Aemon. In other words: Ethics is a team sport.
This year was filled with inconsistencies. We faced crushing isolation and learned that we needed each other. We missed our families and found new ways to connect. We found new ways to work. We found new ways to live.
Some of us were lucky. We didn't lose a loved one to the pandemic. We didn't get sick or if we did, we got better quickly. We still get to work. Our parties may be tiny, but there is a nice meal waiting for us on our holy days.
Others had a year filled with loss and grief and pain. Loved ones caught the virus and got seriously sick or died. Many lost their jobs. Others lost their businesses and had to lay off long-time employees. Many don't know how they'll pay their next rent, their next mortgage, their most basic bills.
Any time I complain of not having my favorite movie outings, not teaching face-to-face, not seeing colleagues at the office, I remember what I was spared. And, as I reflect on this crazy year and think of the next one, I remember the lessons I learned.
Funny. As I look at my list I see nothing about "being productive," or "writing more papers" or "becoming a better professional." My list is about strengthening my bonds with fellow humans, it's about caring and living and breathing.
So what about next year? Will we immediately forget what we went through and go back to business as usual?
I hope not. I hope 2021 becomes the year I choose to embrace and treasure life - just being alive. I hope I remember what mattered. I hope I remember to breathe.
Happy New Year, fellow humans. Happy Year of Life.
About the Author
Dr. Cris Wildermuth is an Assistant Professor at Drake University, where she coordinates and teaches at the Master of Science in Leadership Development.