A Voice in the Wilderness

I’d consulted with a major Midwestern power company for a while, when a leader in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W.) said to me, “You are a voice in the wilderness.”

At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a voice in the wilderness or an advocate for some obscure theory. I focused my work—based on my real-life experiences–and attention on transformation and the leadership necessary to bring forth such difficult change in organizations. There was dire need for such renewal: few organizations achieved excellence and fewer yet could sustain distinction once realized.

I was fresh from my 18 year career at the Star Tribune newspaper where, in my last position, I had led a successful transformational change effort in a large business unit. When we began, I thought of how much I would be able to change the enterprise. But I was probably changed the most. My eyes were opened to the vast untapped human potential available to those who learned to think differently about leading groups of people. I left the company to complete a Ph.D. in leadership and organizational change and to share what I’d learned with leaders.

I tried to teach the leaders of the power company how to free their employee’s potential by inviting workers to get involved and to create conditions where each person could feel valued, involved, and informed—alien ideas in a mechanistic system. I wanted leaders to embrace tough love, lead from their values and humanize the huge enterprise. I believed the leaders would leap at the chance to improve the bottom line in dramatic fashion and reduce the time, energy and vast expense of constant conflict and litigation with the union represented employees.

I was mistaken.

The personal growth the leaders must make to lead such change felt too scary for them. I found the same in other organizations. Leaders wanted change; they didn’t want to do the hard work of change. My personal goal changed from “change the world” to “do what I can.”

I made each job an effort to plant the seeds of organizational enlightenment: those moments of metanoia that changed the inner person. Over 13 years I met a handful of leaders who understood and embraced the insights. But most could not summon or sustain the courage and commitment to undertake their own transformations and to confront angry and painful resistant to deep change.

After 13 years, tired and in need of renewal myself, I retired.

I never thought that calling on people to embrace the humanity of others would be a voice in the wilderness. The wily veteran of the I.B.E.W. was right.

We need many voices with moral courage to call out in the humanistic wastelands of our organizations and institutions.

More so today than ever before.

Moral Courage

A man wrote me:

The seduction of the hiring process convinced me I had arrived in an organization that would embrace my methods. A place I thought my heart and talents could finally grow and flourish. I offered too much of myself unprotected and was “wacked” into reality.

I watched as the president of the company berated, humiliated, and then fired a good and stable sales representative. He did this in front of all the employees of the company. I sat and squirmed in my seat, metaphorically visualizing the owner shooting a hostage in the head to instill fear and ultimate control over the rest of us. The president noticed my discomfort. He asked, in a threatening manner, if I wanted to stay with the company. I felt compelled to quit on the spot, which I did. I managed to speak my mind a little as I left. I am now home, unemployed and recovering. (I wrote this man’s story in an essay entitled, Bearing Witness).

This story exemplifies moral courage: doing what you believe is right in the face of loss, criticism, rejection, or retaliation.

Over 18 years in many leadership and change agent roles at the Star Tribune newspaper and 13 years as a consultant to leaders of dysfunctional organizations, people tested my commitment to my values many times. The decision to stand up for my values was sometimes painful, and I wrestled with self-doubt at times. But I had vowed to live a value driven life, and I believed in value driven leadership. The values my parents had taught me were deepened and solidified as a young Secret Service agent where I experienced the might of ethics, excellence, and purpose and as a lost soul in a tough alcohol treatment center where I came to believe that my life depended on a value driven life.

I abhor rankism, dishonesty, disrespect, unfairness, mediocrity, and irresponsibility. I value respect, justice, fairness, integrity, excellence, and responsibility. I never thought of myself as having moral courage: I tried to be a good person and leader and fought through my anxiety and fears to do what I believed was right the best way I knew how.

Acting from our values often comes at a cost. I know well the fear of losing a job, and the loss of status and relationships along with humiliation and marginalization. It takes courage to stand alone in danger, to defy the unwritten rules, to illuminate the dark side, and to go against the cultural grain.

Why take the risks of moral courage at all? I do it to support values and to live an honest and authentic life and to do what I can to make the world  healthier and more ethical. And to stand up for those with less power and to go against the villains of our world. I do it so I can like myself. Aristotle said we become brave by doing brave acts. Think of moral courage as a muscle that grows stronger with use.

Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership, wrote that the problem in the world is not the evil, lazy, crazy, immature, disrespectful, and irresponsible people. They have been with us forever. The problem is the good people who have gone to sleep. We live surrounded by the need for moral courage to stand up to abuse, injustice, dishonesty, willful ignorance, the ism’s of the world, and the lack of compassion.

Moral courage may be the most needed courage in the 21st century and the mark of personal maturity and true leadership.