The Courage to Take Moral Action

September 26, 2009

I’ve written previously about Ira Chaleff’s book The Courageous Follower. The first and most important courage is to look inward and assume responsibility for yourself.  That continuous inward journey is the foundation for right relationship between followers and leaders.  After looking inward, the courageous follower can look outward, first to serve the purposeful leader, then to challenge the leader who has strayed from the shared purpose, and to help the leader transform.

Concerns about our leader’s policies or behavior should always be taken to that person first, unless they are doing something illegal (e.g. sexual harassment).  If we give our leader opportunities to respond and they don’t, then we are justified in appealing to higher authorities in our organization.  And if those appeals up the chain fail, we have to decide whether to leave or to stay.

If you stay, you need to understand clearly that you have no voice and your organization and its leaders do not care about you.  I personally find that totally unacceptable.  Work is a big and important part of all our lives, and we owe it to ourselves and our families to spend that time with people that share our values.

Leaving is rarely easy.  It is risky and expensive.  It can be emotional because it can often mean leaving behind some good friends.  It is also terribly disappointing because you know you do your job well and you deserve better.  But if you are a good performer in dysfunctional or toxic work environment, and you gave a good faith effort to help address the problems, if things don’t change I think you should leave as soon as possible.

Sometimes just the threat of resignation will be enough to convey the depth of your concerns and cause change, but don’t threaten to resign until you are prepared to go through with it. 

I need to give you my two-cents worth on how to prepare to move on and how to look for a new job differently so you don’t end up in the same boat again, so stay tuned.

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Comments (6)

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  1. C. Clark says:

    When choosing to stay or go, I’ve found the most compelling argument is whether staying contradicts the values I’ve claimed in, and for, the workplace. If so, as a leader, I feel it’s important to demonstrate the courage to honor my convictions. I hope this bold action also shows that the choice of leaving and preserving personal integrity IS possible.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Excellent point, Claudia. As we both know, sometimes leaving is the ONLY way to preserve personal integrity. Thanks for stopping buy and contributing!!! Bret

  2. Wally Bock says:

    Shaun Kieran introduced me to the idea of a hostile workplace as a desert island. If you’re on one, you have two choices that work. You can learn to live there, developing the support and nourishment you need. You can plan your escape, even if that means that you can’t leave for a while. The strategy that doesn’t work is to just hunker down and hope for rescue.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Great analogy, Wally. Concur that hunkering down is a poor strategy. If you can escape, even if it takes a while, that is the way I would go. Thanks! Bret

  3. Bret, I loved this post. The only thing I would add is that the way a leader or a follower actually knows what his/her moral conviction is, is to be intentional about figuring it out. I find it is important for a leader to reflect, meditate on, or work with a coach to figure out what is important to them so that they know what their boundaries are – where will they put their stake in the sand?

    I found it surprising that many leaders haven’t spent the time or effort to do this. And its hard to make a decision about what to do when personal values don’t match up with what is actually happening in the workplace if you haven’t done the work to figure out what your values are.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    That is an excellent point Mary Jo. It’s easy for me to see because I know where my line in the sand is, but I can see how people would struggle if they have not reached the points where they have clarified for themseleves their value and values. Very helpful – thanks!! Bret