The relevance of this for leaders is complex, and it is urgent.
Every organization must be prepared for the possibility that there will be allegations involving one of their leaders or employees. There are any number of excellent resources available for legal guidance, and there is no longer any excuse for not having policy in place for properly handling a complaint or accusation.
But there are leadership aspects to these situations that are not only matters of law and reporting.
(I am acutely aware that I write and live in a position of privilege. My reflections on these difficult and all too common matters come from what I hope is recognized as a place of sincere compassion and concern for all who have been victimized.)
1. It can happen here. Every sector of society is affected by sexual misconduct. There is a natural tendency to magnify the offence of those we consider “other”by religion, industry, or politics; while minimizing what’s happening in our own tribe. As the reports increase we are seeing clearly that no community is immune and some of those that might appear cleanest on the surface are most damaged at the core.
2. This video of Rachel Denhollander addressing the court about the horrific crimes committed by Larry Nassar should be required viewing. Her eloquence, courage, and poise while revealing the lasting harm done to her and many others, and the way she exposes the systemic factors that enabled the abuse to continue year after year, are an important window into both the reality of victimization and the power of survivorhood. It is well worth the time for every leader, but it is graphic and disturbing.
3. False accusations can happen. The court of public opinion can be harsh and is not bound by the rule of law and that should concern us. I have had friends lose their careers and worse to allegations that were either later proven false or were never tested in a court of law. But I have had far more friends reveal past abuse that they never reported because they tragically blamed themselves or believed no one would believe them. All the research I can find is clear that the incidence of false claims is very rare and pales in comparison to the rate of unreported assaults. So yes, it is possible that someone with an axe to grind will make a malicious false report. But too many abusers have been enabled to continue their harm because we didn’t want to believe their victims.
4. Your voice matters. Meaningful change requires that these conversations happen in board rooms and locker rooms, at dinner tables and in places of worship. For survivors to come forward and for society to become safer we need to change the atmosphere that has silenced and shamed those who have been victimized. That will happen when we move these issues from the hidden corners of our communities into the light. And that requires more of us to participate. It should go without saying that this is not a women’s issue. This is a fundamental human issue and we all have something at stake.
5. Refuse paralysis. Do not let taking harassment seriously keep you from your work. The scale and frequency of stories emerging is overwhelming. Even more if we consider the ones that are happening that don’t make the news. It is tempting to turn all our attention to caring for the victims, identifying the offenders, and seeking justice for everyone. But for most organizations that is not our primary purpose. We need to see this as a critical reminder to ensure we are doing what we can to prevent and address harassment while maintaining focus on the reason for our work.
6. Hold to a higher standard. Ontario politician Patrick Brown was pushed to resign despite no charges being filed against him. However leadership does not offer the presumption of innocence that is a hallmark of our legal system. A leader who is not trusted cannot be effective. The Bible’s admonition for leaders to be “above reproach” and that those who lead “will be judged more harshly” applies to every leader. Recommit to having exemplary character and accountability, and make it a non-negotiable for your organization. Character counts. Even when there are high profile leaders who seem to be exceptions.
What we are experiencing is fundamentally a good thing. We are way past due for real conversations about sexual assault and harassment in society, and in our families and organizations. It should be uncomfortable and certainly there will be examples of it not being handled ideally. But all decent human beings should be united in wanting to shine light on the ugliness that has been hidden and enabled for far too long. This is time for leadership; but it must include real listening, grieving, and change.
If you can point to excellent resources for training organizations in preventing sexual misconduct and/or responding properly to a report please add it in the comments.