While separation from an organization may be a long, well-considered process, resignation based on principles is often abrupt. We can resign because of our own breach of trust or in protest of the leader’s. We’ll examine the former situation first.
From the day courageous followers assume a position of trust close to a prominent leader, they must be prepared to resign if they break that trust. Leaders and their teams are trusted to vigorously pursue the common purpose within the framework of community and organizational values. Even the appearance of having broken that trust may require resignation. It is best to mentally prepare for this eventuality from the start. When circumstances demanding resignation occur, we usually have little time and scant mental and emotional resources to think things through.
The need to offer our resignation in the face of a breach of trust develops out of a sense of why we are there and whom we serve. Resigning can be a statement of commitment to the common purpose and an act of confirming community values. It is not egoless, but ego-respecting—we have too much respect for ourselves, the leader, and the organization to be found writhing out of our moral obligations.
Under these circumstances, a resignation needs to be tendered quickly to make an effective moral statement. If it is offered belatedly, it appears to be what it is—bowing to pressure—rather than an honorable recognition of the real or perceived breach of trust. An effective resignation can itself be a redemptive act. At this stage, considerations about our own welfare and what we will do next are inappropriate. Of course these anxieties are present, but they are outside the imperative of our decision.
On the other hand, a resignation is not offered lightly. It is not an appropriate response to every mistake. We cannot demand perfection of ourselves any more than we can demand it of our leaders. Organizations and individuals pursue their purpose and meet their objectives by doing and failing and learning and doing. Nor does a courageous follower resign to avoid responsibility for cleaning up a mess. It may take more courage to stay on the scene and spend years unraveling the consequences of our actions than it does to leave.
Sometimes offering to resign is protective of the leader, showing respect for his values, and helping distance him from a debacle he did not cause, from actions he did not sanction. A resignation can be a courageous act that clarifies accountability. But “taking the fall” for a leader obscures accountability and may not serve the common purpose well.
Early in their relationship with a leader, courageous followers should establish criteria for resignation:
Under what circumstances must I resign? What types of activities would violate the core values of this organization and its community?
Under what circumstances should I consider resigning? What activities would appear to violate the organization’s values, even if they represent poor judgment rather than betrayal of trust?
Under what circumstances should I hold my ground? When would it serve the organization to do so, even if it hurts me or the leadership?
Thinking through these questions can clarify values and formulate guidelines for future actions. This clarity may prevent real or perceived violations of trust from occurring.
If it is appropriate to offer to resign, the courageous follower approaches the leader with speed and deliberation. If the leader concurs with the follower’s decision to resign, they decide together how to announce and implement the decision. The resignation becomes a final team effort that confirms the organization’s values, minimizes disruption to the organization’s pursuit of its purpose, and respects the overall contributions of the follower.