A defining moment for leadership occurs when it is confronted with a moral stand by a follower. What leadership does next may affect the fate of the organization and its leaders for years to come.
If followers feel the need to take a moral stand, leadership has already missed or closed itself off to many earlier signals. This may be its last chance to pay attention. But it is a great challenge to listen to the criticism implicit in a moral stand. If the stand taken is directly related to your actions as leader, it will, naturally, trigger impulses of self-defense or self-preservation. If the moral stand brings to your attention serious charges against other levels of leadership, it may produce a reaction of shock, denial, or conflicted loyalties.
A common response is to devalue the individuals taking the stand. It is the easiest and also the worst possible response. One can always find flaws in individuals, their case, or their methods. These must be put into the context of the fact that individuals taking a courageous stand are risking a lot and are unlikely to be taking the stand gratuitously. Seeking to understand what is valid about their concerns, rather than focusing on what is not valid, must come first.
Another common response is to devalue the charges. They may seem implausible, exaggerated, or even hysterical and outrageous. This may be so. But it is the unthinkable that can sometimes go unnoticed and do terrible damage to an organization by the time it eventually comes to attention. Do not dismiss charges that seem outlandish until you have conducted a careful, not cursory, investigation. And do not devalue charges that may seem plausible but relatively unimportant to you. They are clearly important to someone else who just may be a better weather vane of public sentiment than you.
The moral stand may take the range of forms we have examined, including refusing to cooperate in an activity, bringing a situation to the attention of a higher level within the organization, and threatening to publicly resign if a situation is not remedied. Just as it is useful to have procedures in place for responding to potential crises, it is useful to have a procedure for responding to a moral confrontation to the organization or its individual officers. Here is a possible response protocol:
Separate the message from the messenger. Pay careful attention to the content regardless of your view of the messenger.
Listen both to the content and to the strength of feelings about the matter. The seriousness of the situation is better gauged by both factors.
Regardless of your initial reaction, promise to get back to the individual personally, and commit to a time frame for doing so.
Avoid any impulse to take precipitous and poorly advised damage control measures, such as document destruction.
Decide which advisers to consult, bearing in mind as necessary which relationships confer legal protections for privileged communications.
With the help of your advisers, gather any additional information you need to understand the full scope of the situation.
With this additional information, play out the potential consequences, including best-case and worst-case scenarios, avoiding any tendency to denial.
Review and restate the core values that will guide your course of action. Generate two or three options for consideration that respect these values, and respond sufficiently to the gravity of the situation.
Choose the course of action that best serves the common purpose, and act with the vigor, courage, and imagination the situation warrants.
Report back personally to the individual or individuals whose moral stand provided the catalyst for your actions.
As the situation progresses, credit the courageous followers who took the moral stand, while accepting responsibility personally or corporately for the wrong actions now being corrected.
Such a protocol may be executed in as little as several hours or as long as several weeks. Time is not generally on your side in these situations, and speed can be as important as proper deliberation. The crucial act of leadership is to respond to a moral stand in an equally principled manner—and meet courage with courage.