Yonason Goldson, Rabbi and the Director of Ethical Imperatives, believes we all have a new opportunity to look at that it means to be an ethical person. It is not about seeing the world in black and white but in the between: the gray. In this episode, he joins Janine Hamner Holman to discuss the power of ethics and how he works with leaders to create a culture of ethics that builds trust and drives productivity.
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Grappling With The Gray: Understanding Ethics In Between Black And White With Yonason Goldson
A Conversation With Rabbi Yonason Goldson
What am I paying attention to today? The power of humility. Our guest gave me a definition of humility, which I love. One of the things that I love about it is that it had me realize that we have collapsed so many different ideas into others. When we think of vulnerability, we have collapsed that with weakness. When we are vulnerable, it takes strength. It takes courage. It takes leaning in. Humility we have collapsed with thinking less of ourselves.
In an earlier conversation with Rabbi Goldson, he said, “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. It’s thinking of ourselves less and of others more.” I thought that was just brilliant. With that, I am thrilled to introduce our guest. Rabbi Yonason Goldson is the Director of Ethical Imperatives. They work with leaders to create a culture of ethics that builds trust, sparks initiative and drives productivity.
He’s a keynote and TEDx speaker, trainer, coach, community rabbi, as well as a podcast host, a columnist, an author, a repentant hitchhiker, a world traveler and a retired high school teacher who is joining us from St. Louis, MO. He has published hundreds of articles, applying ancient rabbinic wisdom to the challenges of the modern secular world. He’s also the author of six books. Most recently, Grappling With The Gray, an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity. Welcome, Yonason.
Thank you, Janine. I do have to mention that, as much as I would love to take credit for that quote about humility. I must give credit to Rick Warren, the noted pastor who wrote The Purpose Driven Life. It resonates with me the way it resonated with you.
I attribute it to you. You attribute to him. Maybe he will then attribute to somebody else. It’s one of the things that I love about being intentional, about where some of our ideas come from is then we get to give credit where credit is so wonderfully due. It connects right back to your frame of ethics, which I love and I’m sure that we will get into more. As I begin most of our shows, I’m going to ask you this question. What is something that you have become aware of that either intentionally or unintentionally, people aren’t paying attention to? What’s been the cost of that nonattention?Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. It's thinking of others more. Click To Tweet
I had a response formulated but, since we’ve been talking, different ideas have popped into my head that are much more relevant. What we aren’t paying attention to are the ideas that are being articulated because they are focused instead on who is articulating them. We live in a society that’s becoming more and more polarized. To give you an example of how this works. Tulsi Gabbard, the Congresswoman from Hawaii who ran for president, happens to be one of my modern-day heroes. She described what it was like on the first day she took office. It was all the freshmen Congressman and everybody’s together. The Republicans and the Democrats, it’s all kumbaya. Everybody is happy.
They went off to their respective parties. They were told, “If the other party proposes a bill, vote against it.” In fact, for one particular bill, I think she said she voted for it despite the fact it was proposed by the opposition party. Two years later, her party proposed the same bill and then it was okay to vote for it. We wonder why nothing’s getting done. We wonder why our leaders have such low poll ratings.
We’re not paying attention to the message because we’re focused on the messenger. It’s all become politicized. It’s all become ideological. We do ourselves such a profound disservice. It’s not just politics. It’s beliefs, values and everything in our lives. We are so territorial. We’re so tribal in our ideologies and our way of thinking that we simply retreat into our enclaves. We keep parroting the same slogans and bromides.
This is not the way a society can function. We have to engage people who don’t think like us. This is what it means to be ethical. It means that I examine all the different available ways of looking at a topic and of thinking about a subject. I evaluate them. It may turn out that I remain committed to my initial point of view, at least I’m going to understand it better. I’m going to be more secure in my understanding. Every once in a while, I might actually discover there’s another way of looking at things. Maybe I’ve even been wrong. Isn’t it better to discover I’ve been wrong than to persist in being wrong?
I love this way of thinking! I’m three-quarters of the way through Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again. He’s talking about the power of challenging our ideas about things. About why. for humans, it’s hard to look at our thinking, to look at how we’ve thought about something and be open, and to be curious about the possibility of changing what we have thought.
Ethics: What people aren’t paying attention to are the ideas that are being articulated. Instead, they are more focused on who is articulating them.
I love it that you’re connecting that to ethics and to what it means to live in a life that is in line with our ethical values. Tell me more about how curiosity and openness can connect to our values? We often think, “These are my values. This is what I believe, so I’m not going to question it. That would be heretical to me. I’m only going to hang out with people who think, believe and see the world in the same way that I do. I’m going to be in a bubble that reflects what I believe.”
In my TED Talk, I open it and I close it with the same questions I asked the audience. I asked them to ask themselves, “Where did you get your values? Where did your beliefs come from? Did you choose them? Did they choose you?” We absorb so much from our parents, teachers, peers, the news media and the entertainment industry. How many of us have reasoned our way to what we believe? The danger that we’ve already talked about is that we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to choose, to evaluate what we believe and what our positions are.
More than that, it makes us insecure because, on some level, we realize we don’t know what we’re talking about. We can’t defend our positions. Therefore, it’s easier to attack anyone who thinks otherwise. We discredit them so that we don’t have to face the responsibility of having to defend our own positions. I quote my college English professor, Max Bird, who said, “I don’t understand why people complain about being disillusioned. I would like to be relieved of my illusions.”
As you were talking about that, I love that you made a connection to the school because remembering back, I had a very challenging experience when I went to college. I ended up at a wonderful, beautiful campus, which was part of what drew me to it. This bucolic campus. When I was there, I ended up being challenged by a lot of the beliefs that I had grown up with. It turned out a lot of the students who went to this college had very different belief systems. I had to defend, I had to look and figure out, of these beliefs that I grew up with, what am I willing to defend? What am I going to hold to? What am I going to release? Why?Choose your values. Don't let your values choose you. Click To Tweet
Few of us are in that situation where our views are being thoughtfully challenged or where we’re open to thoughtfully challenge our own views. What ideas do you have? Here we are at this moment in time where we’ve been living through a pandemic. Organizations are now thinking about how do we go back to work or how do we meld a hybrid work culture potentially where are some in the office and some are at home?
What has our organizational culture been? What do we want to hold on to? What do we want to let go of?
The idea of looking at our values is super timely, especially because we’re so polarized and living in and through this time of looking at what it means to be a privileged person in our culture. What does it mean to be a nonprivileged person in our culture with the systemic systems that are based on race, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, all of these different ways that we group people? We make judgments and create biases about who those people are.
I think this idea of looking at what are the values that we want to hold on to and what are the values that we want to examine and decide, “Is this who we want to be going forward?” This is the perfect moment in time for everybody to run out and grab a Yonason’s book Grappling With The Gray. What a great title! It’s both the living in between the black and the white, the gray. Also, the gray inside of our heads.
What thoughts do you have about how people can start that examination process? If they’re thinking, “Maybe I should lean in a little. Maybe I should examine some of this stuff.” How can somebody get started?
You touched on many ideas. There are so many different ways we could go. I often cite the example from Jewish history. There were two great academies of Jewish study. They had very different approaches and philosophies. History records that when they debated with each other in the study hall, they argued with passion. It was as if they fought with swords and spears. When they left the study hall, they were friends. It was never personal because each school recognized the sincerity, intellectual, and moral integrity of the other.
How did they recognize that? It’s because they listened. They made an effort to understand the other point of view before insisting that they were right. The school that we follow, it’s called the House of Hillel, they’re the ones who recorded the tradition of their rulings but they always recorded both rulings, theirs and the other school. They always recorded the minority view first because until you understand what someone else believes, you can’t understand what you believe. If I can’t explain why you believe what you believe, how can I be sure you’re wrong?
If I can’t articulate why you might reasonably disagree with me, how can I be sure I’m right? It comes back to this ideological divide. We have to recognize that the world is not divided up into neat binary choices. It’s not all black and white. In fact, very little of it is. When it’s black and white, things are relatively easy. Most of life is in that gray area. Shades of right and wrong. Sometimes we’re choosing between right and right or wrong and wrong.
It’s a question of prioritizing.
If we understand that we have the same values, if you read the definitions of classical liberalism and classical conservatism, they’re not at odds with each other. They’ve worked very neatly together. Edmund Burke is considered both a conservative and liberal. He incorporated respect for the traditions of the past and the values that evolved through society. He had a forward-looking view. How can we work to make society better? There’s no reason that those have to be in conflict.
It all comes down to personalities, ideologies and power struggles. We do ourselves such a tremendous disservice when we don’t make an effort to understand both sides. When we do, we’ll discover we have more in common than we have that divides us. We can work together. We come out stronger together than the sum of our parts! It’s not that hard. Except, increasingly, our society is set up to short circuit our efforts to come together and find a principled compromise.
I’m going to go back to where you started with the idea of listening. There is something called the International Journal of Listening, which I had no idea that such thing existed before I started working with organizations about what it means to listen. I found the statistic that 92% of our time, when we think we are listening, we are, in fact, doing something else. What we’re doing is we’re listening to the voice in our head.
I’m listening to you but I’m listening through the lens of, “Do I agree with this? Do I not agree with this,” as opposed to listening to learn, being curious about “What’s he going to say next? What’s his perspective?” I’m working with a client where two of the principals in the organization cannot get along. What is happening is they are, in fact, agreeing with each other but they’re saying different things and not hearing the agreement.Until you understand what someone else believes, you can't understand what you believe. Click To Tweet
It’s common, especially inside of organizations, where we need to be working together, that we forget to listen for that commonality. Instead, we’re listening for how are we different as opposed to how are we the same? I love this acronym that you have for ETHICS. Could you walk our audience through that, please?
One of the challenges of ethics is that we don’t all have a clear definition of what ethics is. I like to say that ethics is the discipline of recognizing and taking responsibility for the impact our actions have on others. That works on a microcosmic and on a macrocosmic level. Even when I’m in private, the actions, choices I make transforms me, which will then impact all those with whom I come in contact. When I talk about ethical leadership, it has more to do, not with the choices we make per se, but with the character traits we cultivate. It then enables us to make better decisions more of the time.
The E of ETHICS is Empathy. You have to start by relating to those people with whom we come in a contract. Feel their pain, their joy. Especially for bosses, managers, what are our employees’ wants? What are their desires? It’s only when we have that sensitivity towards others that it is possible to consider how our actions are going to affect them.
The T is Trustworthiness. That doesn’t just mean that we are trustworthy ourselves but also that we’re willing to trust others. If we don’t trust other people, why are they going to trust us? We all know that micromanaging doesn’t work, yet too many of us try to do it anyway. That’s a lack of trust. I raised four children. Why do you need to help your kids with their homework when it’s a lot easier to do it for them?
My wife used to joke, “Mrs. so-and-so is doing well in fourth grade.” It was clear that she was doing her kid’s homework. It made it easier on her and on the teacher but the kid didn’t benefit. That’s the element of trust.
The H is Humility, which we already talked about. When I admit that I don’t know something or I got something wrong, that doesn’t make me look weak. It gives me credibility, especially for those times when I need to assert that I’m right.
Ethics: Political beliefs all come down to personalities, ideologies, and power struggles. People need to understand both sides because they’ll discover that they have more in common than they would’ve thought.
If people know that you can admit it when you’re wrong, they’re going to believe you more when you need them to get behind what you’re saying.
The I is Inquisitiveness. We talked about curiosity. It’s important to always want to learn more, to never assume we know it all.
The C is Courage. By the way, when talking with leaders, the I is inquisitiveness. When I’m talking about employees, the I is Initiative. There are times when we have to read a situation. We have to respond to something that may not be exactly on the checklist. We can point to all kinds of incidents where people didn’t take the initiative and disaster struck because they didn’t feel they had the authority that goes back to trust.
It’s scary to admit you’re wrong, to admit you don’t know, to take responsibility and to take the initiative. This is why you need a culture of ethics because that promotes all of these different character traits, recognizes them and encourages them.
Finally, the S is Self-discipline. I started with my definition of ethics as the discipline of recognizing and taking responsibility. This is not a checklist. You don’t go down at once and say, “Finished.” It is a process that we return to again and again. We are always trying to improve and trying to take ourselves to the next level.
Before we wrap up, I want to give you an opportunity. Tell our audience a little bit more about what you’re grappling with in your book, Grappling With The Gray.
Grappling With The Gray starts with an introduction that lays out my seven principles of ethics. The body of the book is a collection of vignettes or scenarios of ethical dilemmas. Some are from headlines. Some are real stories. Some are made-up stories. The idea is not to decide who’s right, who’s wrong, what’s right, what’s wrong. The purpose is to try and see each issue from both sides. I had a few thought questions that followed each scenario and then a short-guided discussion. It’s best to read the book with a partner or a book club. It’ll be great. Study it in a class.Ethics is the discipline of recognizing and taking responsibility for the impact your actions have on others. Click To Tweet
The publisher marketed it as a textbook but it’s not written like a textbook. It’s very readable. It’s engaging. It’s one of those books you can pick up and flip it open anywhere. The whole idea is to condition ourselves, to develop ourselves, to think in ethical terms, to build our ethical muscles. Part of ethics is recognizing that we’re not going to get it right all the time. We’re human beings. Those shades of gray may become so murky that we’re not always going to have confidence. Maybe there is no good choice because that happens too. What we want to do is want to equip ourselves as best we can to grapple with those dilemmas so that we can get it more right, more of the time.
I keep thinking about the connection between one of the things. I’m working with a number of clients on diversity, equity and inclusion and how much that connects with this idea of ethics that you’re talking about. Do you see that connection as well? What are the threads that we can weave?
I belong to the National Speakers Association. At one meeting, we introduced ourselves. I said, “I work with ethics.” One of the fellow members came up and said to me, “Do you talk about diversity and inclusion?” We weren’t using the word “equity” yet. By that point, I had conditioned myself to answer every question, “Yes,” and then consider.
That’s what happened here is that it never occurred to me to go into that space. Yet, once I started thinking about it, it seemed like a natural progression. What I like to talk about is intellectual diversity. What is the benefit? Sure, you want to have all the different groups represented but then you start getting into this arithmetic. It’s a fairly unsophisticated way of looking at things.
What’s so important about different cultures, different kinds of people is that we all have different points of view. We see things in different ways. In Jewish law, two brothers were not allowed to testify in the same court case. The fear was that having grown up in the same environment, they would share the same unconscious biases. Therefore, they might think they were reporting accurately and objectively what they saw but they wouldn’t realize that they shared the same subjective predispositions. You need people who have some distance from one another to get as close as you can to a measure of objective truth.
In any institution, academics, business, politics, you need people representing different perspectives, different points of view, listening to each other. Listening to understand, not listening to respond or rebut. This is where diversity is so important. In the high court, in Jewish legislation, the junior member of the court would always be the first one to speak. If the head of the court speaks first, who’s going to argue with him? The CEO speaks first. Who’s going to argue with him?
The CEO has to keep a deadpan face. He can’t register approval or disapproval. Let everybody have a voice. Who knows what ideas haven’t been thought of yet? Who knows what perspectives may emerge from the discussion? The more diversity you have of thought, as long as we have common core values, the more diversity of perspective, the more vibrant that discussion becomes. That’s where we get the better outcomes. I was talking about cultural fruit salad. If you want to serve fruit, you can make a smoothie. Put it on the blender, whip it up and everybody’s included but you’ve lost your diversity.
You can’t separate the apple from the blueberry.
You can have the fruit or you could have the fruit salad as the appetizer and then the fruit cake as the dessert. They’re not interacting at all. With a fruit salad, you have pieces of individual fruit. Each of which has its own character and identity but all mixed together in a common presentation. Jonathan Haidt talks about this in his book, The Righteous Mind. It’s shown statistically that the more we focus on differences, the further apart we end up. It doesn’t mean we have to compromise our identities. It doesn’t mean we can’t be true to ourselves. Focus instead on what we have in common and then we bring our unique selves to the relationship. That’s when you have a dynamic, healthy, vibrant culture that is going to produce enduring and positive results.
I was about to take us into the arena of psychological safety, how you create that in organizations and the connection between that and ethics. That’s going to have to be for another episode. I’ll have you back and we’ll just continue talking about this wonderful, fascinating topic. Thank you so much for your time and your insights. This has been a delight.
It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for inviting me on.
You’re more than welcome.
Remember, great leaders make great teams. Until next time.
- Yonason Goldson
- Grappling With The Gray
- The Purpose Driven Life
- Think Again
- The Righteous Mind
About Yonason Goldson
After graduating from the University of California with a degree in English, Yonason’s travels brought him to the land of Israel, where he immersed himself in the study of ancient law, history, and philosophy for the next nine years, eventually earning his rabbinic ordination from the head of the Jerusalem High Court. He then embarked on his 23-year career teaching high school, first in Budapest, Hungary, then in Atlanta, Georgia, and finally for 20 years in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives now with his wife, Sara Miriam. They have four children and two grandchildren.
In 2016, Yonason retired from teaching to start his company, Ethical Imperatives, LLC, offering keynote speeches, training, and executive coaching. His video series, News of the Day, offers ethical outlooks on headline news. Together with Dr. Margarita Gurri, he co-hosts the podcast The Rabbi and the Shrink, discussing ethical perspectives and strategies for developing healthier relationships that lead to personal and professional success.
Yonason’s eclectic background, which includes visiting 39 states and 23 countries, provides him with a unique perspective on applying practical ethics to the workplace and a distinctive approach toward DEI as a positive force for creating a healthy and vibrant work community.