As studies of whistleblowers amply demonstrate, it is not uncommon for a follower who disavows or opposes a leader to pay a significant price. If leaders are deeply insecure and vindictive, they may even retaliate for simply suggesting that they review their behavior or policies.
Courageous followers may need to come “armed” with “weapons” of their own—information, allies, bylaws, legal representation—that make the price of retaliating too high, and make cooperating with efforts to reform a situation more attractive. The best protection for abusive leaders is darkness and secrecy; our protection is light and documentation.
Followers are in a stronger position when they are insulated from formal retribution. Public officials appointed for fixed terms, educators with tenure, workers whose union will shield them from retaliatory demotion, staff who have accrued enough years of service for full retirement benefits, all enjoy some protection and are more prone to challenge leadership policies or practices with which they disagree. We would do well to try to create some of this insulation in our own lives. In addition to keeping detailed documentation, contingency plans might include:
obtaining strong written references, for use in a future employment search or court proceeding, before publicly opposing a leader;
developing media relations who will be interested in our story when we are ready to tell it;
affiliating with groups that will support us emotionally, legally, and financially if we oppose the leader’s practices;
making arrangements with friends or relatives to care for our families if a confrontation with the leader risks their physical or emotional safety.
Regardless of contingency arrangements, if we make the decision to publicly blow the whistle, our lives will be severely impacted. We will find ourselves under enormous stress. The least endearing parts of our personality may become more pronounced under this stress. At the time we most need support, we may drive it away.
It is important to be emotionally prepared for this and to prepare our support system. We need to confide in our family, friends, and colleagues. We need to give them a chance to be part of our decision-making process. When we call on them to stand by us, they will not feel they are being dragged into something without consultation. We must ground ourselves in the deepest sense of purpose and the highest values we have, so we can face whatever ordeal awaits us with grace rather than bitterness.