Knowing the Right Thing to Do
5 Spirit-of-the-Law Standard for Fairness
While letter-of-the-law (legal) decisions are expedient, spirit-of-
the-law (equitable) decisions require reflection time. Legal decisions call
upon our rational processes (IQ); equitable decisions require us to use
both rational and emotionally intelligent (EQ) or integrated processes
(addressed later on in this chapter in the section on emotional intelli-
gence in decision making). Discerning which type of decision-making
process is more appropriate calls for a leader’s intellectual savvy and
skillful ability to perceive the underlying emotional dynamics.
When you make a spirit-of-the-law decision, you take into account
the “totality of the individual’s circumstances” (Blackstone & Cooley,
2003). You look for the root cause of the problem in order to make a
decision tailored to each individual situation. Most likely you will con-
sider the following:
• What is the person’s explanation?
• Were there mitigating circumstances? Did anything “beyond
the person’s control” cause the unwanted result?
• What is the person’s overall track record? Has she been reliable
• Is this a “first offense” or part of a pattern of inappropriate
behavior? • What effect will this decision have on the person and her family?
• What will help the person change for the better?
• Will this decision promote community harmony?
Because of their history and origin in the Court of Equity, spirit-of-
the-law decisions are also called “equitable” decisions. Equitable deci-
sions require evaluating each person on a case-by-case basis as a unique
individual. No “one-size-fits-all” template works.
Leaders who make spirit-of-the-law decisions are seen as caring
individuals. Parents and family members share their concerns with
such a leader, knowing their viewpoints will be fully heard. Spirit-of-
the-law decision makers are often loved and admired for their wisdom
and compelling interpersonal skills. However, letter-of-the-law deci-
sion makers may label equitable decision makers as “pushovers.”
THINK ABOUT IT
When has your spirit-of-the-law decision been right? When has another spirit-
of-the-law decision backfired? What accounted for the difference?