Updated: Mar 22, 2021
The scene at the capitol building early this year was a shock. However, watching people in the Republican party – both before and after - wrestle with the consequences of allegiance in a context of charismatic, personality-centered leadership wasn’t. Years ago, I saw many of those same dynamics play out in a group of less than ten people, with colleagues I knew well and shared most of my life with at the time. Instead of surprise, what was going through my mind was an aching familiarity - I’ve worked for this man. I’ve been there. I wasn’t asking how this happened, I was mourning that this happens, to greater and lesser extents, all the time. Perhaps you share an experience of this kind of working climate?
Where deeply dysfunctional behaviors are given a pass because it’s thrilling to be in alignment with the leader’s personal power
Where individual acts of retaliation or bullying aren’t labeled as a pattern or addressed because “everyone’s relationship with their boss is their own private concern”
Where harms (of omission or commission) are rationalized as unavoidable in achieving some higher purpose
If you do, the recommendation is not to accept nothing less than perfection, but to step up to more accountability for weaknesses at all levels of the hierarchy.
News sources I receive paint the situation for Republican leadership as one of obvious choices – morality vs. self-interest or cowardice. I left the organization after a short time rather than align with the leader’s behavior but while I can hammer my stake into theoretical high ground, some of my colleagues there (thoughtful, likeable, progressive people) probably wouldn’t put themselves in the remaining categories. They might point out that the truth was nuanced, and they are right. Ted Cruz might also say that his situation with the GOP is nuanced, and without irony, I’m sure there’s much there I don’t see. The recommendation is not to get away from easy judgments of good and evil, but to act in ways that reduce harm GIVEN nuance.
I reached out to one colleague I hadn’t spoken to since his own exit to see where his narrative was similar and different. As a Black man, he’s perpetually aware of systems that don’t take accountability for harm. We had a terrific conversation about effectively resisting immoral aspects of organizational culture and what contributes to people getting tangled in or untangled from those systems. Being honest with yourself about your flaws, recognizing that as a human you will find ways to justify your behavior, he said, can help inoculate you. I think the same thing goes for organizations. Awareness that you will inevitably be doing damage generates openness to hearing about that damage, and access to better tools for change.
We’ve seen the consequences of this lack of humility on a national scale, and it commands our attention – but fixating on the worst cases blinds us to the fact we have smaller, but equally important messes to address at home.