Leadership and Intolerance

by | July 27, 2012 Categories:

Leadership and Intolerance

 “The culture of every organization is shaped in large part by the behavior leaders are willing to tolerate”

The value of, and capacity for tolerance, is often espoused as an essential characteristic of healthy individuals, teams, organizations and communities.  The capacity to demonstrate tolerance for diverse ideas, experiences, beliefs and perspectives is seen as essential if we are to successfully navigate the complex issues that challenge us.  It is a capacity that we want to instill in our children as we prepare them to live successful lives in a complex democratic society.

I recently drove by a reader board at a convention center that identified the “word of the month” for the community as “tolerance”. This caused me to pause and ask a question.  As we continue to lift up tolerance as a critical value, have we implicitly or explicitly conveyed the belief that intolerance is bad?  Have we gone so far as to communicate the belief that intolerance is unacceptable in contemporary society?  Have we labeled those who confront and challenge us as intolerant in an effort to demonize them?  Is the meaning of this concept more complex than we are willing to acknowledge?

The quote that opens this post implies the possibility that some behaviors should not be tolerated and that leaders have a role in determining this.

This past week I have been following the reports of the investigation into the Penn State football program.  The investigation has uncovered significant evidence that key leaders within Penn State were aware that child molestation was occurring by one of their own and yet chose to tolerate this behavior in order to protect the reputation of their school and football program.  There is justifiable outrage at these findings and most would call the response to this behavior a “no brainer”.

And yet I return to my previous questions.  In this case it is clear to virtually everyone that this behavior should have been confronted years ago and stopped before additional children experienced this trauma.  No one would argue that this is behavior that is not to be tolerated and that leaders had a responsibility to address it much earlier.  There will be a long-term impact on the individuals and the community as a result of this failure of leadership.

The challenge that remains for me is this; destructive behaviors show up in relationships, teams, organizations, and communities on a regular basis.  This behavior compromises the health and effectiveness of the group and yet goes unchecked by members of the community.   For example:

  •  People fear retribution or retaliation for sharing divergent points of view or difficult information.  This fear is often justifiable.
  • People experience bullying behavior from colleagues and/or groups of colleagues.
  • People consistently fail to follow through on personal and organizational commitments.
  • People behave in ways that are significantly out of alignment with the stated values of the group.

A couple of years ago I was observing a staff meeting where one staff member viciously berated a colleague in front of her peers.  When later I questioned someone as to this behavior and the fact that it was not addressed, I was told, “that’s just the way she is”.

So what is the role of leader in determining the boundaries between tolerance and intolerance?  How do leaders navigate this challenge in service to individuals, communities, and organizations?  How does the leader invite others to share in the responsibility of aligning our actions and speaking with our commitments?  The opening quote speaks clearly to me about a significant responsibility.  Kouzes and Posner, in their classic book, The Leadership Challenge, state that leaders are to “Model the Way” in aligning with values.

Where are you challenged in this area and are you willing to engage the task?

To be continued . . .





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