In the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance, there is an scene where the hero of the story is faced with an important decision.

Without giving away the story (it is a movie worth renting and viewing if you have not already had the pleasure), the lead character is playing in a golf tournament and while he is moving some debris from around his ball, the ball moves. For those of you unfamiliar with the game of golf, when the ball moves from its original location as a result of something that the player has done, the player is assessed a one stroke penalty.

The scene in the movie adds some interesting elements to the scenario. First, there is a young boy who looks up to the lead character and can be seen as a mentee of sorts who is learning from him. Second, there is the caddy who has served as a mentor to lead character throughout the movie. Third, if the lead character makes the decision to call the stroke on himself he will move out of a tie for the lead and put himself into a position where winning is far less likely.

Despite the possible negative personal consequences, the player calls the stroke on himself, much to the chagrin of the young boy who promises to tell no one, exclaims that it is just a stupid rule, and says that no one will ever know. But the lead character chooses the moral high ground and responds that he will know, and then shares his decision with the tournament referee.

The situation is clouded further as the other competitors and the referee question the player…almost begging him to make a different choice. But he holds firm and sticks to his decision.

This scenario is used in my leadership training programs to illustrate a couple of important concepts: (1) there is no right way to do the wrong thing, and (2) leaders have to make the tough calls even when it is personally costly to do so. Various other aspects of the situation are often discussed, including the need to live up to a mentor’s expectations and to set a good example for those you are mentoring.

Recently a new angle was brought to bear on this scenario that had not been brought up before, and it is one that is worth exploring: When a rule does not make sense in a given situation, should you blindly follow it if no one will be harmed?

At one level, this would seem to open the proverbial hornet’s nest of possible problems. But it also illuminates some interesting realities that may arise for credit union leaders on a day-to-day basis.

In the context of the movie scenario above, the rule really did not seem to make sense in the situation the player faced. The movement of a golf ball two inches from its original location would have little impact on the shot to be made and did not appear to afford him an unfair advantage. But the integrity issue remained for the player–the right thing to do in his mind was to take the penalty that was defined by the rules he had agreed to follow; the rules that are the very foundation of the game he was playing.

If you think about it for a moment, you can no doubt envision similar scenarios that emerge from time to time in your credit union–cases where a member asks for something to be done that in the strictest sense is against a rule or policy, but does not give the member any unfair advantage or deny a benefit to someone else. Or perhaps you can think of scenarios related to employees where a slight bending of the rules and policies would seem to make sense in a specific situation.

Depending upon your personal sense of ethics and morals, you may or may not be comfortable with this situational approach to the rules. But the reality is that there are people you lead (and serve) who are very comfortable with it because it is what they see and experience on a day-to-day basis.

So what should credit union leaders do?

1. Engage your senior leadership team in a candid and open discussion about the subject. Use the movie scenario above as starting point and then flesh out some of the situations that occur within your credit union where bending the rules a bit may make sense. Determine where the team stands and define an agreed upon approach so that you are treating everyone (members, employees, and leaders) in a consistent manner.

2. Review all of the rules and policies that you currently have in place. Focus on assessing whether they truly do make sense and should be followed to the letter of the law in all of your interactions with members and employees. Change the ones that need to be changed. Remind the entire staff about the ones that need to be followed strictly. Use common sense as the guiding principle in deciding which is which, and make it clear where discretion begins and ends for employees at all levels of the credit union.

3. Communicate your position on this issue to everyone associated with your credit union. All employees need to know what the expectations are with respect to the rules and policies that define the way you will conduct business. Members need to know what you value and how it will guide your day-to-day dealings with them. Strive to make sure everyone understands the position you are taking and to hold them accountable for maintaining the standard that is being set.

BOTTOM LINE: The balance of integrity, rules, and common sense merits some serious discussion with your key people. With society implicitly condoning situational ethics, you need to determine where you want your credit union to be on the continuum. More important, you need everyone in your credit union to handle these situations in the same way every day with every member and every colleague.