In these fraught and divided times, it can be sometimes hard to find your voice if you are in a minority. Being the lone voice of dissent can be challenging and uncomfortable. Like the grain of dust that through friction produces the pearl it is essential to both respect it and be it, when the situation calls. This habit, of listening to your inner voice when it registers discomfort about the actions of others is a hallmark of courageous leadership of self and others. Finding your voice and using it is header still. Equally important is respecting and holding a place for the lone dissenter in your team, family, community, group of friends, is a hallmark of courageous self-leadership and leadership of others. Where have you been the lone voice of dissent? Where do you suppress your inner dissenting voice; where can you hear the lone dissenting voices around you?
Personal reflectionI know the personal cost of suppression of that inner voice of dissent and the courage required to give it expression. At two different points in my career, I was called upon to make a choice- loyalty or dissent. In the first case, I chose loyalty which turned out to be misplaced, in the second I chose to speak out and leave my job as a result. This was not easy, but it was liberating. Psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out an infamous experiment in the early 1960s, following the horrors of the holocaust, which seemed to suggest that human beings have a natural tendency toward obedience i.e. are drawn toward compliance with those who are in positions of authority. The context of the experiment was a classroom in which teachers were instructed to administer an electric shock to learners if they failed to learn a list of words. The shock was fake but the teachers did not know this and followed the instruction even when the shocks were high enough to cause considerable pain. They were not under any external threat or duress either. The results caused a considerable shock at the time and remain controversial. However, the most important conclusion from this research is that there are mental habits we can nurture to counteract this tendency.
Build these four habits:
- Question the authority’s legitimacy. Just because someone has a role does not make them fit to be followed. The importance and power of ‘followership’ are being emphasised as the symbiotic other of leadership. One cannot exist without the other. Leaders only have impunity if we give it to them.
- Follow your moral compass and act on it even when you appear to be in a minority. When given an instruction that makes you uncomfortable ask yourself “Is this something I would do on my initiative?” The answer may well be “No,” because, according to Milgram, moral considerations play a role in acts carried out under one’s own steam, but not when they emanate from an authority’s commands.
- Don’t ignore even the smallest discomforts, letting small things go leads to bigger things getting through your moral threshold later. Acquiescence to the commands of an authority that are only mildly objectionable is often, as in Milgram’s experiments, the beginning of a step-by-step, escalating process of entrapment. The farther one moves along the continuum of increasingly destructive acts, the harder it is to extract oneself from the commanding authority’s grip because to do so is to confront the fact that the earlier acts of compliance were wrong.
- Find allies: If you are part of a group that has been instructed to carry out actions you find go against your moral grain, find an ally in the group who shares your perceptions and is willing to join you in opposing the status quo. If this is not possible look for allies outside of the immediate context or stand on the shoulders of those who are your role models, past or present. Be inspired by them.