Time To Take A Stand

I’ve never seen so many protests, rallies, and calls for activism.

In recent weeks I’ve had conversations with leaders trying to discern how to respond to ethical issues within their organizations as well as political ones in broader society. The specific concerns are different, but the heart of the matter is “When should a leader take a stand based on their own convictions, and how can they do that well in consideration of the impact it may have on their organization?”.

The challenge is real.

What a leader does always has a symbolic value as well as a practical one. Like it or not, leaders are a reflection of their organization and what a leader does is considered to represent the values, priorities, and agenda of their agency. The implications of a leader drawing a moral line in the sand can be significant, for better or for worse. There are many examples of these situations becoming the defining narrative of a leader’s tenure even if they had no desire for that to be the case.

So how do we decide when the risk is worth it?

First we should be aware of our own natural temperament. Some leaders are drawn to conflict; they are fired up by the chance to enter the battle and anticipate showdowns with enthusiasm. Others prefer a more conciliatory approach whenever possible. Knowing your tendency is helpful both for you and for those who may be advising you to understand.

The best response may be the opposite of your first inclination. Wisdom rarely acts without due consideration. There are times when a leader must follow their conscience with full awareness of the risk. The challenge is to determine when and how. There are many factors to consider, but to simplify, asking these questions may be helpful:

  1. Is the issue a matter of preference or morality? Some of us have a hard time distinguishing what we think is best from what is truly a matter of right and wrong. Considering whether a decent person could arrive at a different position than I have is a valuable way to test my convictions.
  2. Am I reacting as an individual or as the voice of my organization? We need to understand that while we are always accountable to the cause, not everything we believe is necessarily reflective of those values. Unless the issue directly relates to our mission and established priorities we are not free to leverage our role for credibility.
  3. What action is most appropriate? There are always a range of responses to moral problems and we need to know what we hope to accomplish when we speak up. Determining how vocal, specific, controversial, and public your stand should be requires wisdom. Counsel from trusted friends, mentors, or the board can help gauge the best approach.
  4. What are the most likely and worst case ramifications for the organization?  Loss of donations, reputation, legal matters, or relationships are all potentially relevant. Our sense of being in the right can make it hard to recognize the possibility for negative outcomes. Being prepared for both positive and negative replies is a basic best practice.
  5. Is reacting to this issue worth the risk? Having the courage of our convictions means accepting the consequences of our decisions. For leaders that also means considering what blowback may come from other employees, donors, opposing interests, or the general public. If it makes sense to act having considered these factors then we can act boldly and confidently.
In the end, there are essentially three options for a leader facing an ethical dilemma:

Stay silent
and hope that the issue resolves itself.

Speak up and take responsibility for whatever reaction follows.

Resign and handle the difficulty without the weight of leadership complicating things.

I admire people who have the courage to stand up for what they believe to be right. Courage is a basic qualification for leaders. But too many leaders have damaged their credibility by being unwise in their handling of potentially harmful conflicts. taking the time to answer these questions may be what you need to determine whether to take a stand and how to do it for the best outcomes.

When have you had to deal with an ethical challenge and how did you decide what to do?