When do you speak up and when do you toe the company line? One of those life questions and a dilemma no one wants to face, but an all too likely scenario everyone, leaders, managers, and individual contributors alike, have or will encounter. Sometimes it will be little things – not too public and not too dramatic. Right and wrong are easy to discern and the course of action is clear. The repercussions are minimal. And sometime it just might be a huge, public, multi million dollar, life changing issue. The potential repercussions massive, a truly defining moment in life. How you answer that question will speak volumes about you, your character, and the company for which you work.
General Stanley McChrystal came to one of those moments, and he made his decision. He went public and went outside the chain of command by speaking out about the course of the war in Afghanistan. He put it all out there – his professional reputation, his livelihood, the respect and confidence of his peers, superiors and subordinates. He violated two fundamental principles of the military and government – he violated the chain of command AND he questioned the civilian leadership – you just do not do those things. We are watching play out in a very public setting the realities of making one of those major life decisions. None of us will ever know all that went into his decision, but rest assured we will all see the repercussions of his action.
Was he right in going outside the chain of command? Not my place to judge. What I do find myself wondering is “what if”. What if a senior military officer would have stepped forward at some point during Vietnam? What if no one ever spoke out about the tobacco industry? What if there was no Whistle Blower protection laws? What if someone who worked for Madoff asked a question, any question? What if…
When is speaking out the right course, the ethical course? When must you toe the company line? Does your “first hand” knowledge trump the decisions of your leadership, or is it just your ego talking? Are you speaking out or are you complaining? Is there a greater good that you are not seeing at your level? Does your senior leadership have better strategic vision than you? Is silence the right course? Is speaking out worth the personal cost? Heavy questions. Questions every leader must reconcile in their mind. We all have or will face these sorts of moments. Some will be quiet, relatively easy, painless decisions. Some might be painful, public and costly. Watch and learn from the experience of General McChrystal. No one knows what will happen, but I can assure you it will be interesting.