The Trolley Problem and Being a Leader

In my previous post I wrote about the trolley problem (aka “the train dilemma”). Though an interesting problem in its own right and one which rightly deserved its own post, it wasn’t really just for the sake of interest that I wrote it.

As regular readers of my site would know (yes, all 60,000 of you, +/- a few), I sometimes write posts for the sake of providing background for a future post.

This was one of them; and that future post is this.

And it’s going to be about leadership.

The Trolley Problem

You may see the trolley problem as a philosophical and moral problem. One which makes you ponder the complexities of life a little; question your own values a little; and makes you ask yourself what would I do? a little.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with such tough morally ambiguous philosophical questions, I’m glad it’s not real. I wouldn’t want to make a decision either way.

A Thought Experiment

But imagine if you had to make a decision, and that real lives were at stake. And imagine that you were going to be judged on that decision by both people you know and those you don’t.

To make things a little easier for you, suppose  you get to pick an advisory committee.

You can pick as many people as you want, whoever you want, to be your advisers on this issue (the Dalai Lama; Presidents and Prime Ministers; Iron Man; God), but with one catch: you can’t tell the anyone who will be judging you who your advisers are. (And even if you tried to, they wouldn’t listen.)

This was the thought experiment I had when I read about “failures” in government — failures I thought were not so much failures as much as people making what they probably thought were good decisions, but with not-so-great outcomes.

Whether it was the introduction of Obamacare, the handling of the (as of now still) missing Malaysia Airlines MH 370 flight, or the Singapore government’s two-child policy in the 70’s, things that make sense from one perspective are make nonsense in another.

The Two-Child Policy in Singapore

Of those above, the one that hits closest to home is probably the two-child policy (I’m Singaporean after all), and is the one I’m most familiar with.

Singaporeans, it seems, aren’t reproducing enough to hit the replacement rate. This means the Singaporean population will drop over the years if not for the effect of positive net immigration.

A lot of governmental effort has gone into encouraging Singaporeans to have more babies (e.g. “baby bonus” schemes) and relaxing restrictions on foreigners (willkommen!), which many Singaporeans aren’t too happy about (e.g. overcrowding on public transport, “foreigners stealing our jobs”, bla bla bla bla).

Many naysayers of the two-child policy cite it as one of the root causes of the low fertility rates we’re having now (and by extension the immigration “problem”), and lament the government’s lack of foresight when they were implementing the policy in the 70’s.

The thing is, I’m not too sure.

Yes, it’s true that the policy might have exacerbated the problem of low fertility rates we’re facing. But it has also occurred to me that we might well be facing the same issue because Singapore might not have prospered as much as it had — fertility rates and economic development could well be negatively correlated. We Singaporeans might have sought greener pastures elsewhere and/or foreigners wouldn’t want to come here anyway.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I find it difficult to believe that any person in a leadership position would choose to make bad, unthinking decisions on purpose.

Outcomes and Decisions

One important distinction that I learnt in University (thank you Ms. Olaru) and that has shaped my thinking ever since is between outcomes and decisions. You should never confuse a bad outcome with a bad decision, and a good outcome with a good decision (just ask me crossing the street without looking and narrowly escaping certain death, looking all cool and unflustered).

If an outcome turns out to be disastrous, it isn’t always obvious that it led from a bad decision. And even if an outcome turns out to be great, it isn’t always obvious that it led from a good decision.

Good/Bad Outcome = [Good/Bad Decision] X [Good/Bad Luck]

On Being a Leader

The trolley problem to me pretty much embodies so much of what leadership is. Leaders have to make decisions on many issues steeped in ambiguity. Issues where there’s no right or wrong but only probably right or probably wrong.

When it comes to the trolley problem, the more I thought about it the more I realised that leaders would choose to do what caused the least harm overall, and not necessarily the least harm to themselves. And they take responsibility for what they’ve done.

If it means that pulling the switch would likely save a few more people then the switch will be pulled, even if it means explaining themselves to death in court or to the public.

Because that’s the right thing to do. And that’s what leaders do.

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My name is Donn, and you’ll find me working at the intersection of business and information technology, constantly looking for ways to apply IT to business and life to make things better. I’m a big fan of data analysis and its subsequent communication. It always gives me a thrill extracting meaning out of data through analysis, and figuring out the best way to present the findings for maximum impact!

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