The Last of Us: ethical leadership lessons from a killer fungus apocalypse

Written by Mark Rowland Wednesday 05 April 2023
Would you “kill” one person to save a group of others? The finale of The Last of Us explored (some of) the ethically grey decisions that many managers and leaders face
Movie post for 'The Last of Us' show

Mild spoilers for The Last of Us season one ahead.

The finale of The Last of Us presented its version of the “trolley problem” – a well-known philosophical dilemma that posits the question: would you shift the tracks on a runaway tram and kill one person to save others? 

The show, for those that haven’t seen it, is about a broken man tasked with escorting a teenager through a US ravaged with a civilisation-destroying fungal disease, in the hope of developing a cure. The first season ends with its protagonist, Joel, having to make an ethically grey decision that is understandable, but brings major consequences for the main characters and humanity in general.

Now, the average manager doesn’t have to make genuine life-or-death situations – and won’t generally be operating in a post-apocalyptic world full of mushroom zombies – but they will, in some form or another, face some trolley problems during their careers. 

To offer up a common example, they may have to decide who on their team should be let go in order to secure the jobs of their remaining employees. In redundancy situations, you are literally sacrificing people to save others. While not as morally taxing as the actual trolley dilemma, it still represents a hugely difficult choice. 

More difficult still are the grey ethical decisions we might find ourselves facing in our day-to-day work. Another example that’s very topical is around climate impacts: what if a decision you make will have a positive bottom-line impact (crucial during an economic downturn), but bring negative impacts in terms of your carbon footprint. 

Sure, The Last of Us finale was pretty extreme, but it threw up the kinds of “grey areas” that managers and leaders will regularly encounter.

Read on for three ways to navigate ethically grey situations as a manager


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