"Decent" is a slippery word, which does not exactly qualify it for stand-out status within the English lexicon. On the one hand "decent" just means mediocre, acceptable. A grade of 'C' is decent. If someone says that their team has a decent chance of winning, save your money. It is not a full-throated endorsement of a sure bet. A decent song is one that I will not complain about but do not care if I ever hear again. A decent television show is one to watch if there is nothing else on. No one will be pleased to drive a long distance or pay a lot of money just for a decent meal. Decent is good enough and nothing more.
On the other hand, "decent" as a mark of character is high praise. Saying that someone is decent indicates that they have a goodness of spirit, honesty, and integrity. I may not agree with a given politician, but if I deem her a decent woman, I am suggesting that I respect her rectitude if not her opinions or convictions. Saying an actor is only a decent performer but is also a decent person is neither redundant nor contradictory. It offers faint praise for the actor's thespian prowess even as it commends the actor's personal righteousness.
So, in one sense, as a broad descriptor, "decent" means "good enough" while on the other, as an assessment of human behavior and motivation, it means "better than good." (I told you, slippery.) Obviously, achieving decency in the first sense is the definition of unremarkable. Achieving decency in the second is a mark of distinction, particularly in our current environment of rampant indecency.
This latter sort of decency of character can be exemplified by a particular episode that took place in an organization when the longtime CEO was in her last year before retirement. This CEO was a woman of deep conviction and honesty. In short, she was a decent woman. In her last year, the organization committed to a multiyear contract with a vendor that promised to help put the organization on a whole new economic footing while maintaining its focus on its mission. The CEO and her staff probed this offer in every way, including contacting the vendor's current clients, and, while they learned that the road might be rough, they were assured that any struggles would be well rewarded.
As it played out, though, the vendor was unwilling or unable to deliver on its promises. In addition, and more troubling, the vendor pressured the organization's staff to commit to directions that were perilous to the organization and to its ability to deliver on its mission. Upon learning of this looming crisis, the CEO first sought to reset the agreement with the vendor, but the vendor failed to meet the terms of the revised contract as well. She then negotiated to rescind the contract altogether after that first year, thus sparing the organization unnecessary struggles and sparing her successor as CEO the burden of an untenable contract.
Think of the wherewithal her action required. The CEO first had to accept and admit that the arrangement with the vendor, however well intentioned, was in error and that she herself had been mistaken. She further had to convince herself that despite strategizing and budgeting around the tantalizing promise of financial rewards for the organization, the promise was empty. Now the organization had to make up for a budget shortfall. Had the contract been successful, it would have sealed her legacy as a CEO, so breaking the contract must have required an extraordinary act of self-discipline. Indeed, she scuttled the deal as almost the final act of her longtime career in leadership. It was the right thing to do and could not have been easy to present to her board. The correct decision required a leader with a core of fundamental decency who was more interested in the ongoing mission of the organization than she was in securing a legacy or protecting herself.
In a counter example, a CEO at another organization discovered, upon taking office, that the organization was in dire financial straights. To his credit, he worked with his team to devise techniques to keep the organization afloat. He did not, though, devise a strategy for moving past its precarious state, and those emergency actions quickly hardened into norms. Over years, they became sacrosanct practices, "the way we do things," and any effort to undo or even question the efficacy of those norms was met with extreme hostility and even viciousness. Anyone who proposed or sought to modify the practices was suppressed or purged, no matter their intention or approach. The organization's mission was subordinate to the practices that had been established. This CEO did not have the wherewithal to unwind the web of emergency actions he had undertaken because he did not possess a decent character. His method was to bluster, distract, and bully to get things done the same old way even though he was accomplishing little—all symptoms of his rampant indecency. The overall quality of the organization itself, inevitably, diminished with no hope of improvement due to the CEO and his team's fecklessness and malevolence.
Both stories are true although with identifying details altered.
The CEO in the first example was inherently decent and possessed the integrity to make difficult decisions even when they might reflect badly on her. The CEO in the second example was truly indecent. While he rose admirably to face the crisis early in his tenure, that effort exhausted his stock of mettle. Hence, one organization could continue to be excellent and deliver on its mission while the other inexorably sunk below the mark of mediocrity and could not fulfill its primary objective. It was less than decent.
So, human decency engenders excellence, which should not be surprising. A wise man said that "excellence is the result of habitual integrity" (often attributed to Lennie Bennett). Since decency and integrity are merely separate words to represent a person's inner strength and potency of character, it is not surprising that both describe the ingredient necessary to foster excellence in all we do.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.