Earlier this month on Fresh Air, host Terry Gross put Greta Gerwig on the spot by asking her to respond to the recent wave of sexual assault allegations in the film industry. Given that Gerwig is a prominent actress and the director of an upcoming female-centered film, “Lady Bird,” I expected to hear a vehement stand against this behavior, an acknowledgement that we have not done enough over the years to combat sexual assault and harassment, and a call-to-action for individual responsibility. Instead, I heard a heartbreaking admission of fear from both women: Gerwig feared speaking about the issue so close to the release of her film, and Gross said she worried about saying something about comedian Louis C.K., who has appeared on her show in the past, “that would be misinterpreted.”
Despite my frustration that they were unwilling to state their views, when I tried putting myself in their shoes, I began to understand more fully their predicament as leaders. Gerwig represents not just herself, but also a team of actors, producers, and financiers who placed a bet on her film and depend on her to represent them. Gross is the host and co-executive producer for Fresh Air, a radio show distributed by NPR, which depends heavily on relationships and support from film producers, agents, writers, and actors. Their reluctance to state their views does not necessarily mean they do not care or feel strongly about what is happening. This example illustrates the conflict that arises when one’s personal values are put to the test against one’s responsibility as a leader.
As conscious leaders, we are constantly tested on our competencies, values, and beliefs. We can’t always be prepared for the questions we will face. While admitting you may not know what to say is honest and important, leaving it at that can seem irresponsible — causing stress to yourself and crushing the hopes of others looking up to you. How can we better stand up for what we believe in when we are put on the spot, while keeping in mind that others are depending on us?
Thankfully, even if you don’t know where you stand on an issue just yet, your words and actions can still be beneficial to others. Knowing your values is the first step. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a practice for identifying your values and an approach for putting your values into action. Here are some additional techniques to bring your values to life when doing so feels especially risky:
If you’re not able to say what you think, say what you’re willing to do.
Let others know that you will do something about a given situation even if you don’t know what that will be in the moment. It might be as simple as saying, “I am holding myself accountable to develop a position on this matter, and I will relay it to others in a week.” This helps people recognize that you’re not deflecting the question or the problem. If you truly believe that you do not need to make a stand, state that as well, but ensure that you describe why using your values.
Criticize the actions, not the person.
We all make mistakes; it’s part of being human. Fortunately, we all have the capacity to change. The brain continues to rewire itself throughout our lives, even in old age. This means we can change even habits that seem hard to break.
In responding to a moral dilemma, consider standing up and speaking out against the actions of the person in question, and express confidence in condemning those actions based on your values. In this situation, Gerwig or Gross could have stated that “sexual assault is destructive and should not be tolerated.” This, in and of itself, can be a beneficial thing to hear for those who depend on and look up to them.
Speak from direct experience.
When someone asks you about your position on a matter of ethics, speak from personal experience rather than citing an anonymous group (e.g., “We all know that…”). For example, you might say that you are speaking out as an individual, as a woman or man, or as someone who is directly impacted by the situation. Personal statements make it clear that you’re representing yourself and not others or your organization, and they bring validity to your words because they are spoken from personal experience.
Check your motivation and intentions.
In times of stress and conflict, check your motivation. If your motivation is truly to benefit others, the likelihood of negative consequences is less than if your motivation is self-centered, self-serving, or based on fear, greed, or hatred. Ask yourself, “How can I be of the most benefit, not just for those who rely on me, but also for others who will be impacted by what I say?” This might be difficult to do in the moment, but it’s helpful if you center on a strong intention and even state it out loud, for example, “I would like to be helpful and constructive.”
When in doubt, state your values.
If you haven’t developed a position on a given matter, you can — at the very least — state what you do stand for. Let others know that you value integrity, trust, equality, or other virtues that are true for you. State how you stand for these values in your life, and how you hope that others will stand for them as well. You do not need to be well-versed in the situation at hand to know what you’re willing to fight for.
I could definitely hear the genuine fear in Gerwig’s voice when she spoke about not knowing what to say. It was nice to hear her vulnerability in speaking her truth. We tend to treat leaders as if they should always have an answer; being honest about not knowing can be hard, but it’s a great way to start a conversation.
The bottom line
It’s difficult to stand up for what you believe in, but in times like these, where our values are continually put to the test, it’s important to gain practice. At the end of the day, as leaders we will take on ever greater responsibility, and we should be prepared for this challenge.