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In our careers, we will sometimes face an agonizing challenge: to fight for subordinates or fight for our bosses on a high-profile issue. Our allegiances can become muddied. Our paycheque will seem to be at risk. All those wonderful notions leaders spout about integrity and authenticity can be tested.

It’s not unlike civil disobedience, when loyalty to a principle prods people to act in a way for which they will suffer. In fact, that’s a hallmark of civil disobedience – accepting you will be punished.

Ontario Provincial Police Deputy Commissioner Brad Blair likely understood that when he bucked the powers above him and fought for the people he led after the controversial appointment of Ron Taverner to head the OPP. Premier Doug Ford accused him of violating the Police Services Act. And when the appointment was delayed, he was shuffled aside as acting head of the force, with somebody else given that power.

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In his 1999 book, The Six Dimensions of Leadership, Andrew Brown said as a leader you must be a hero, actor, immortalist, power broker, ambassador and … victim. To ensure the continued health and survival of organizations, leaders must at times be willing to fall on their swords. In certain situations Mr. Brown notes the leader gains because of the courage he or she displays, be it Nelson Mandela in prison or a CEO admitting a goof to colleagues. With victimhood should come learning, for the individual and organization.

I faced this dramatically twice. Once, my staff was rebelling against a decision I had made and one subordinate manager, in particular, was apparently trying to make it a public issue, embarrassing the organization. My bosses were outraged, determined he be executed. I was claiming we lacked proof of his disloyalty.

Then one morning, at our senior team’s coffee klatch, another executive offered me a piece of paper. I reached out to grasp it – until he indicated it would help me prove the case. I pulled my hand away, letting it flutter to the floor. “Sometimes it’s better not to know,” I said. The room was deathly silent, everyone else contemplating my stupidity and deserved execution. I’m not sure I suffered for that decision, but I didn’t gain friends in either camp.

A second time, under a different boss, I was under pressure to fire two people for a minor slip-up of little consequence, at least to my mind. They were in the union and would easily win the grievance but my boss didn’t seem to care. The HR manager was advising me to just do it, but my self-respect wasn’t letting me say yes and my courage wasn’t up to saying definitely no. As it happened, coincidentally, I had been a marked man and was fired a day or two before I would have had to find out where I really stood.

It was a reprieve, but I always wonder what I would have done. I fear I would have caved in. I take away the lesson that it was easier to be courageous instinctively – deciding at so-called blink speed – than when I had time to ponder carefully. We want to give ourselves time in such situations. Maybe we shouldn’t, as we’ll waver and face more anguish.

In Tempered Radicals, Stanford University professor Debra Meyerson profiles quiet heroes who swim against the tide in their organizations, nudging others into making changes that can have profound impact. Tempered radicals are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet also live by their values or identities, even if those are somehow at odds with the dominant organizational culture. “Tempered radicals want to fit in and they want to retain what makes them different,” Ms. Meyerson writes.

That’s not easy. The most radical generation in history, the baby boomers, took the fervour of the Sixties rebellion into organizations and overtly not much happened – although no doubt many had moments if not careers as tempered radicals. Millennials chafe at organizational ways but seem more inclined to withdraw than engage in such acts.

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We salute integrity, authenticity and candour but when it is required, most of us retreat to study our paycheque. Values are wonderful but you prove your mettle upholding them in the rough moments as Deputy Commissioner Blair did, not the easy ones.

Cannonballs

  • Investigating workplace courage, James Detert, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, found that what he calls “competently courageous” people create the right conditions for action by establishing a strong internal reputation and improving their fallback options should things go poorly; carefully choosing their battles given such factors as their values and timing; maximize the odds through managing not only the messaging but emotions; and follow up to preserve relationships.
  • Dissenting directors are significantly less likely to continue serving on the board, with women paying a greater price. A female dissenter is almost four times more likely to be dismissed compared to a female colleague who did not dissent and a male dissenter somewhat less than twice as likely to leave the board than a male colleague.
  • Worth reading: Byron Reese, CEO of the technology research company Gigaom, makes the case for and against artificial intelligence’s imminent impact on ChangeThis and you come away the winner from his thoughtful essay.

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