Anyone who cares about a strong ethical culture and protection of whistleblowers — which should be all compliance professionals everywhere — should read a column in the Washington Post this weekend written by Alexander Vindman, the national security officer driven out of the military because his whistleblower report led to President Trump’s impeachment.
Whistleblower retaliation is nothing new to compliance officers. You encounter it all the time, and a fair number of you have experienced it personally. Vindman’s column is a valedictory, really: one part farewell after more than 21 years of public service, and one part warning of the perils facing this country.
I bet many whistleblowers know how he feels. You speak up because you want the best for the organization you serve, and the leaders punish you instead. It’s a painful experience that sears into the memory: the experience of being ignored, being silenced, being punished, being wronged.
It’s not a feeling that fades. On the contrary, it’s a feeling that fuels.
Suffering retaliation fuels how you view your organization, how you do your job, how you interact with others. Retaliation changes the trajectory of how you go through life, at least professionally and often personally.
So if for no other reason, compliance professionals should read Vindman’s essay simply to absorb another example of that retaliatory experience. The more we study it — the more we grasp how the retaliation experience unfolds at a personal, psychological level — the better we’ll be at doing our jobs.
Your own political views about Trump’s impeachment aren’t germane here, I might add. The compliance officer’s job is to deal with whistleblowers, which means you need to understand how they think and feel.
That makes Vindman’s essay required reading. It gives us a glimpse into how a whistleblower feels after the worst has happened.
Culture, Values, and Leadership
As much as I savor Vindman’s essay for the emotions he tries to convey, he also illuminates a point about corporate culture that’s worth discussion. It happens in the fifth paragraph:
Even if you object to some of Vindman’s more pointed phrases (for the record, I don’t), underneath it all is an important point about how a corporate speakup culture is supposed to work, and what’s really going wrong when it doesn’t.
A whistleblower is expressing loyalty to ethical values that are supposed to undergird the whole organization. A good leader welcomes that loyalty to ethics. A fearful leader wants loyalty to himself alone.
A leader who wants personal loyalty rather than loyalty to the company’s ethical values is a leader who puts himself above the organization. That is the base impulse at the bottom of every accounting fraud, corruption scheme, crony hire, or harassment behavior. A rotten corporate culture is one where the leader puts himself above the interests of the whole.
What’s all the more frustrating is that we already know this! In various ways this point has been documented time and again.
Twenty years ago, leadership guru Jim Collins published Good to Great, one of those management tomes that CEOs and business professors love to put on their bookshelves. Collins said the single more important criteria for an organization to vault into greatness is a leader who embraces humility and shuns ego.
Collins called such people “Level 5 leaders.” They welcome frank feedback and objective analysis. They want to hear bad news, so they can resolve the issue and focus on generating success. As Collins himself wrote:
Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.
More relevant to compliance officers, we’ve also seen academic research demonstrating that companies with more internal reporting also tend to see better business outcomes than rivals with less reporting.
That should surprise nobody. An organization with strong internal reporting is an organization where people want to talk about problems — which is precisely what Level 5 leaders want to see.
In each case, from Vindman to Jim Collins to the academic research, we’re talking about the same thing: loyalty to ethical performance rather than to people — and it correlates to better performance! Who’d have guessed?
The only contribution Trump brings to this analysis is proof that the opposite holds true, too. He values loyalty to himself above all, and has no ethical principles that anyone has been able to detect. He cannot stand criticism or bad news of any kind. I suspect he would score a negative number on Jim Collins’ leadership scale.
That would imply, then, that the organization Trump leads is a god-awful mess, one rife with in-fighting and inability to accomplish even basic tasks. Which sounds just like the United States we all see every day.
Vindman raised the alarm, and we should thank him for it. The question now is whether the shareholders of this organization will fire the CEO before he does any more damage.