08 Feb 2018 19:03 IST

Taking a stand

bl on campus Leo Fernandez Leadership

We claim to stand for principles and integrity, but we all struggle to ‘speak truth to power’

The story is told of Russian strongman Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union as First Secretary after Stalin’s death. He had fully supported and taken part in Stalin’s purges but after taking power himself, he actually led the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union.

He was censuring Stalin at a public meeting when he was interrupted by a voice from the audience: ‘You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?’

‘Who said that?’ thundered Khrushchev. Nobody moved a muscle and silence clung over the room. In a quiet voice, Khrushchev then said, ‘Now you know why’.

We can all identify with the situation — we claim to stand for principles, to be leaders of integrity, but we all struggle to ‘speak truth to power’. And yet, leadership demands that we do. Often, it is a fake leader clothed in power who creates this climate of fear. This is the time when real leaders have to pass the test — are we prepared to sacrifice position, reputation, financial gain in order to do the right thing? Or will we be mercenary and grasp at what is expedient?

The choices we make define the kind of leaders we are and the kind of legacies we will leave. But why should we speak truth to power?

Principles over power

Power and positions are temporary and can change. Principles are timeless and unchanging. If we are not anchored in our leadership by some of these unchanging principles, then we risk being like ships tossed around by every passing wind. We are likely to look back on our lives and struggle to find what we stood for.

Power is a destructive addiction. In the US today, most Republicans are fawning over Trump. He holds the keys to their future, or so they tell themselves. Hopes of position and power take precedence over speaking the truth. It isn’t surprising that many Republicans who are willing to speak out against Trump are usually those who are not planning on standing for re-election to their seats. As long as there is attachment to power and its perks, we find our mouths clamped.

We saw this in action recently when the Indian Budget reactions were coming in. Several business leaders and finance analysts panned and criticised the Budget, but they were only willing to do it ‘off the record’. Adi Godrej seemed to be one of the very rare exceptions. He was willing to go on record and say, “I think expectations have not been met… overall, I am not very pleased with the Budget.”

This needs strong conviction and some detachment from the obvious results of business. People too keen on how they appear to the Government in power or too dependent on its handouts find that they make compromises on their beliefs.

A hidden agenda

Sometimes, leaders do take a stand but with a hidden agenda. Here, the cure is as bad, or worse, than the disease. They take a stand with the intention of currying favour with the opposite and potentially more powerful side. This is shallow and will not stand the test of time.

When leaders take stand for their beliefs, they become beacons for their teams and organisations. Their employees can count on their unwavering commitment to certain truths that will not change when a crisis comes or when a business short-cut presents itself.

The commitment then percolates down the organisation and becomes a part of its culture. These leaders then create lasting legacies that outlive the passing attractions of position, power, wealth or fame. Importantly, these leaders are able to sleep soundly and not avert their gaze when they have to look in the mirror.

Defending those who cannot defend themselves

The #MeToo movement is a great reminder of the silence of the people who let the harassment, violence and discrimination take place and continue. Powerful men used their positions to control women’s careers and roles, and abused that position to harass them. Many would have known what was going on, but chose to stay silent, to look the other way.

Leadership demands that we defend those who cannot or find it difficult to defend themselves. All of us remember times when we were defenceless and someone who could have, did not raise their voice for us. We need to shine the light on ourselves and ask whether we should do the same or are we prepared to speak truth to power.

In the movie A Few Good Men, two soldiers are on trial for the death of Private Willy. At the end, Downey asks Dawson, his fellow accused and senior: “What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!” Because they were just following orders from the commander of the base — a powerful and aggressive colonel. But Dawson gently drives home the point: “Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy.”

As Edmund Burke put it, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Execution

Several strategies, projects, acquisitions and action plans fail because leaders do not to speak the truth. Facing up to reality and the truth about a decision or action and its implications, is at the heart of good execution.

Sometimes, when there is a leader with a strong and overpowering leadership style, other leaders fail to call out his blind spots; they fail to challenge his assumptions or push back on his decisions. So risks are not identified or given their due weightage. Challenges are underestimated, opportunities are overblown, and the end result is poor execution. The organisation, its people and often its clients pay the price.

Enron was a good example of the echo chamber, when leaders believe their press, agree constantly with each other and avoid the tough conversations that would highlight issues.

Leaders need to ask themselves what or who is truly important. Is it right to gain short-term benefits at the expense of clients? Is it right to take unfair advantage of a supplier simply because you are in a position to do so? Is it right to access confidential and proprietary information and use it unfairly?

Somebody needs to speak up when these issues are discussed. When such a leader speaks, there is bound to be some angst, there is bound to be surprise and push-back from her fellow leaders but if there is clarity of thought and strength of conviction, then she should take her stand and hold it. The organisation and all its stakeholders will be grateful.

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