“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was nobody left to speak for me.” — Martin Niemollers
Courage is by far our biggest test of character. It challenges the extent to which we stand up for what is right, fight for those who are wronged, and confront those who endanger our freedom and rights. Courage is one of the single most defining characteristics anyone can possess, but it doesn’t require us to be perfect to make right that which is wrong.
The call for courage has never been louder. Each and every day we are exposed to denials of freedom and rights, corruption and wrongdoing, abuse of power and people, and exploitation. We are witnessing in real time on prime time the dismantling of democracy.
Leadership requires tremendous courage. I have learned the hard way that trust and respect trumps popularity in making the tough decisions, particularly those that go against conventional wisdom and those that are vigorously opposed by internal and external forces.
David Frum, the senior editor of The Atlantic, recently wrote: “Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within from fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state; not by diktat and violence, but by the slow demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with unnerving insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are now living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered, what happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid, this moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.”
In my book From Bully to Bull’s Eye: Moving Your Organization out of the Line of Fire, which focuses on adult bullying, I assert that you, and everyone you know has been, and will be, a bully and/or target and/or bystander. It’s this last that’s demands our attention; when it comes to bullying, the most important players are the bystanders. They can make a huge difference in the lives of others. I challenge bystanders to become witnesses, defenders, protectors and resisters.
If history is any indicator, only a small percentage will become defenders, protectors of those who are bullied, and resistors to dictatorship. Where there has been genocide, which is the most extreme form of bullying, only a small percent of the population became witnesses, defenders, protectors and resistors. Had that number been raided to a mere 10 percent, the course of history might have had a different outcome.
Stanley Milgram in Obedience to Authority provides a realistic assessment “… ordinary people simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry our actions incompatible with fundamental standards of mortality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
This assessment provides us with a lesson on what is required to prevent people from becoming “agents in a terrible destructive process,” which is to give people “the resources needed to resist authority;” and the best resource is bystanders who have the courage to become witnesses, defenders, protectors and resistors.
In my book I also assert that if more people in the know had the courage to expose wrongdoing during scandals in every segment of society, disastrous outcomes might have been very different.
All of this begs the question, why do most people choose not to become witnesses, defenders, protesters and resistors? It is wrong to label those who do not as cowards. For most, the risks are too high. Historically, many of those who did stand up were severely punished. And, as we know, in all too many cases people and their families were exterminated. In the workplace whistleblowers are usually considered traitors and retaliated against for their treason.
These risks are real, and it is irresponsible to advise people to ignore them. What must be done is leverage the power of the many to create safe methods and environments where people can become witnesses, defenders, protectors and resistors. The resistance movement we are seeing today gives us some hope that barbarian regimes can be opposed. This is equally true in the workplace. In my book I outline how employees can become activists to create psychologically safe, healthy, fair and productive work environments.
Reflect back on what we all learned in kindergarten—the ethic of reciprocity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and be motivated by Mohandes K. Gandhi’s words, “It is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an evil empire to safe his honor, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.”
Doing what you can now can spare you anguish later on. My mother, who is 98, spends much of her time full of remorse and regret. Even though she and my dad were in the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Holland, she feels that they could have done so much more to protect and help those who were targeted. In our daily discussions she constantly reminds me to not have similar end-of-life regrets. Her reflections are a legacy to me and my brothers and have motivated me in my work in organizational and human dynamics.
As I have indicated in my previous articles, everyone—regardless of position or status—can become a leader. A wonderful grounding in leadership is captured in the book, The Education of Cyrus written in the 4th century by Xenophon where he says, “love for honor, love for humanity and love for learning” are the fundamentals of leadership. In determining whether to become a witness, defender, protector and resister consider whether you have ingrained these fundamentals in your being. If they are the decision becomes easy.
There are dangers, but also rewards, to standing up for what you believe in. In a college commencement speech I gave on workplace bullying, I challenged graduates to understand the risk of not being a witness, defender, protector and resister by challenging them to:
- Consider never having to say,
- I could have prevented the ruin of my coworker’s career.
- I could have prevented the breakup of a family unit.
- I could have helped avoid the demise of an organization.
- I could have prevented a suicide or attempted suicide.
- I could have prevented someone from killing others.
I predict that all of us will be challenged in relatively short order to consider never having to say, I could have helped protect democracy and all that it represents. Courage is the key.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally appeared on MoneyInc.com