Response To The Harvard Business School “Sadhu Dilemma”

The Parable of the Sadhu by Bowen H. McCoy

Analysed by Conor Sherman

Many who die deserve life and many who live deserve death, can you give it to them?…All you have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to you.” – Gandalf, wizard from the epic The Lord of The Rings

The issue with discussing the ethics of this parable, with an eye for finding a concrete resolution to the events that took place, is that it supposes there is a solution to be found. It assumes all dilemmas can be solved in a win-win, hard and fast, solution; an “if, then” or a “1 + 1 = 2” if you will. In the events of this dilemma, I believe, there is no answer to the question, but there might very well be a formulaic process that can be applied to the circumstance in order that next time a dilemma of this caliber appears the appropriate action can be taken for all parties. A strong process would not guarantee the best outcome all the time, but it would ensure that fundamental steps were taken to assess if the issues could be appropriately addressed.

The Parable of the Sadhu raises some enlightening questions and conflicts of human ethics that can be addressed only if the underling tenants and presuppositions are addressed. The dilemma of the Sadhu can be simplified to this statement. Should the team climbing the mountains that day have restructured their goals and resources to assist the starving, hypothermic, delirious, almost naked man found on the mountain that day? Furthermore, does the answer provided for this scenario translate into a framework that can be applied to corporations and other large organizations of people?

To address the ethical issues that were faced that day, there are assumptions that need to be analyzed and separated into two groups, first set applies to an individual or a small group of individuals and the second group applies to a larger structured group of people such as a corporation.

There are four ingredients of the dilemma that apply to an individual or small group of individuals. Understanding the ingredients is the first step to deriving a process for ensuring that the best ethical solution is discovered the next time a dilemma occurs.

First, how should the climbers have assessed the weight of the crisis in the middle of the dilemma? For example how should the climbers have dealt with assessing the unknown condition of the stranger? This is a critical step in being able to assess the situation to see if it is a definable problem and then assess the resources and potential solutions needed to achieved the agreed upon resolution.

Second, the process for developing a consensus of the problem and solution is key. The lack of communication was apparent in this story as the climbers were spread across the mountain side and unable to even talk with each other. This lack of communication assisted greatly to ineffectiveness of action that the climbers were able to take. There was no chance of any greater solution other than a culmination of individual actions, because there was no communication or coordination among the team.

Thirdly, the cultural conflict when there is little or no ethical center piece was apparent in this story and can be found in other dilemmas. The lack of a moral common ground made it more difficult to call upon the team to assist and change the plans for the day. Although this divergence of principles did not necessarily stop the team, but it did make it harder for an individual to rise up and unite the team in order to create a great solution.

Fourthly, the story illuminates an issue that all individuals must deal with, how much help is considered enough help and when is it appropriate to hand it off to someone else. At what point is it good enough? When can an individual or small team walk away with their heads held high knowing they took it to the appropriate length and handed the issue off to another more capable team.

These are the four fundamental issues that individuals and small teams must wrestle with, and the response from each person will be different, but they must be answered before a team can deal with a crisis of the magnitude like the dying Sadhu. The corporation or larger organized group of people have additional questions to address because they often have more resources and the ability to affect situations in a more powerful way than any one individual could. If the additional ingredients for the dilemma are addressed then the corporation has the ability to provide a solution that can be magnitudes more powerful than the sum of individual actions. The following points are the questions that a corporation must address before the team will be ready to deal with a crisis.

Fifthly, should a profit focused business approach the issue differently than an individual? The corporation needs to discover if it wants to assist in solving this problem with the corporate resources or will it allow the individuals to assist with smaller individual pockets of resources.

Sixth, how much power should the company give the low-level employee to engage, create solution and solve the problem? Should everyone be allowed to manage the resources needed to solve the problem? How will the company manage the time, energy, and resources to address the ethical dilemma before them, will it be coordinated by a particular of office such as managers and above, only the executive team, or will passionate employees be allowed to take the reins and if so by how much?

Seventh, in a corporate environment how does a company filter and judge between what it should focus on when there are some many possible dilemmas it could find itself entangle with if it was not careful. Large corporations often have deep wells of resources, but it is still not a panacea for all the ills in the world, so how will the company choose if the ethical dilemma is something that it wants to get involved with. Understanding the issue, defining the problem and then proposing a framework for a solution would be a first step to determining if the company should address the issue.

Eight, many formalized groups of people have access to talented individuals, so how will the group or corporation leverage that talent. An issue a corporation would have to address would be, what is the balance between expertise, resources, and determination to solve the problem and who manages it and makes the decisions? Where are those lines drawn for the company?

Lastly, should a corporation be treated differently than an individual, is the focus on profit that big of a distinguisher that it would alter the course of ethics? This is a critical question and underpins the whole argument of corporate involvement. Should the corporation help in solving stakeholder issues? How important is profit? Should a company be treated as a soul-less entity or a collection of soulful employees.

Theses nine questions are the issues that need to be addressed by an individual or a corporation if there is to be any hope of finding any assurance that the right thing was done. These questions begin to address the complexity of the dilemma that was shown in the Parable of the Sadhu. Bowen McCoy (1997), stated “often times the decisions need to be instant and the action taken immediately, and that a failure to respond was a response itself.” The immediacy of the response can both apply to the individual and corporations, but it is impossible to do the deep “soul searching” that is listed in the nine points above in the moment of crisis. These are questions that need to be addressed long before the crisis, once they are settled and the individual, team, or formal group of people are ready to abide by them they will be able to respond to crisis as they appear.

But what about in the heat of the moment? How should individuals and corporations assess the issues to see if it can be defined into a problem and then drafted into a solution? The formula for a robust solution is dependent on the foundation listed above, and then the manager of the team or leader of the designated individuals being able to assess the current situation with the following questions:

  • What resources are immediately available?
  • What is the engagement from the team, will they work together cohesively, are they striving towards the same vision?
  • Will the team drive to the solution when the going gets tough?
  • Is the problem defined clearly, the desired solution clearly communicated, and is there a strong method of communication that can handle a changing circumstance?

Situations are so varied and just because a team can help does not mean a team or corporation should help, or possibly not help is the way they are planning. Not only is there a bedrock of principles needed and a continual assessment from the manager of the team but at a fundamental level the team needs to know if they should engage in solving the crisis. This is the step that is more art than science and the climbers from the parable would have done well to ask themselves some of these questions. Is the victim able to take care of himself? If so does the victim want help? Is what I am about to do going help him in an honoring way? The climbers should have checked their solutions with these questions and assessed the solutions they gave, as recalled by Bowen McCoy (1997), such as the provision of clothes, food, safe place. If the team had asked that question on the foundation presented above the outcome might have been different. Instead the climbers assumed what the problem was and provided the appropriate solution to the assumed problem.

The parable of the Sadhu raises many questions that lay dormant in daily situations, issues waiting to be discovered, discussed, and formed into problems that can then be addressed. The fundamental flaw in looking for a solution that would have applied to the situation of the Sadhu, is that it supposes the discovered solution would apply in other situations, but circumstance is so critical in these situations. The solution is not a resolution of events to complete next time, but a process that can be formed after assessing the fundamental questions raised and applying that process to unique circumstances and teams of people.


McCoy, H., Bowen (1997) . The Parable of the Sadhu Boston: Harvard Business review


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