For the purposes of this blog, let us assume that both Jimmy Savile and Lance Armstrong are guilty of their respective charges. If so, they were both ‘hidden in full view’ and got away with their crimes for a long, long time, although the crimes in question were quite different. Whatever the case, they both raise difficult challenges for leadership.
- The big challenge is that both wielded considerable amounts of personal power: They were both ‘winners’, Armstrong literally in his Tour de France victories and Savile metaphorically through his enormous achievements for charity. Success brings respect and makes it much more difficult to challenge people requiring significantly stronger evidence.
- In both cases, success had brought wealth that enabled them to hire expensive lawyers and to ‘buy people off’ if necessary. Their pockets were certainly deeper than most.
- They were both ‘personalities’ and larger than life with a strong personal brand, which they used to bulldozer their way through situations. People in consequence took more notice of what they said – their words carried weight and meant that challengers faced a bigger task. Indeed, many who complained about both characters were not believed.
- They both demonstrated large amounts of personal drive and went to great lengths to protect themselves and to counter any adverse charges. Armstrong in particular destroyed Emma O’ Reilly an ex team masseurs and is reported to have used threats and intimidation in large measures against many people. Savile is reported to have been a difficult person to stand up to.
- Each had ‘friends in high places’. Savile was constantly seen in the presence of powerful people such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, while Armstrong had strong links with the UCI plus Nike sponsorship.
Being ‘hidden in full view’ means that the façade holds until you see through it. At that point, it becomes clear to you and almost impossible to ignore, and you wonder why others can’t see it. But this is what people like Savile and Armstrong rely on – they operate so plausibly that doubters and detractors can be dismissed, intimidated, bluffed and pilloried. And in organisational life, there are often people who operate in similar ways, although not on such grand scales.
So when someone does see through the façade, they are faced with a most difficult leadership challenge:
Do you feel strong enough to take on this person?
For the most part, the answer is ‘no’. In spite of the fact that other people will continue to suffer; the personal sacrifice required is usually too great and the chances of success too low. The terrain is littered with the bodies of those who tried, and even where they were successful, are still disadvantaged years later.
So the answer has to lie with those who are more powerful than the individuals concerned. Only they can use their positions or access to power to constrain or stop those who abuse their own positions or power. What this once again illustrates is that:
With leadership comes responsibility.
The bigger the role, the greater the self-sacrifice, the larger the demands and the more effort required to do a half-decent job. Care is needed to ensure you are not isolated from the potential whistle-blowers and that you are not another of those who cannot see through the façade. Above all, it means listening to those around you, being curious and taking seriously the complaints of those with the courage to do so.