My book, The Intrepid Brotherhood, relates a history or series of events that eventually required me to make a life changing decision. In fact, although their circumstances may not have been as intense, everyone in the organization was faced with making a similar decision. That was why we ended up with two distinct groups: a “brotherhood” made up of individuals who decided to resist the management ethic being imposed on the organization; and a group of sycophants who, at least, tacitly accepted and complied with the soul sucking campaign of one individual.
A podcast host and leadership expert recently reminded me that these types of decisions are usually determined by an individual’s sense of self-preservation. I say “sense of self-preservation” because that is typically not going to be the same for everyone. My “sense” may be that if I comply with what I perceive to be the “evil initiative” that I won’t be able to live with myself. Someone else’ “sense” might be that they stand to lose too much if they don’t comply. I included a passage in the book that speaks to this dilemma:
At some point in your life, you realize that integrity may present an impediment to acquiring some of the things you had always thought you wanted. You become aware that you will need to make some hard decisions regarding ethics and the example you want to set. You probably won’t even feel it at the time, but it is possibly the most distinctive fork in the road that you will come to during your existence. In each of the two possible choices, there are practically no elements of the other. But, when the consequences begin to accrue from the path that you have chosen to take, you will find yourself looking back to identify the time when you came to that point. You will realize that the paths were clearly marked and that you gave each avenue due consideration.
Lastly, you will realize that where you are now is the result of a conscious decision you made then. You chose this. At that point, you will need to decide if you are comfortable with who you are and the path you took at that fork in the road. I contend that if you shunned casuist ethics and situational integrity and instead turned toward honesty, regardless of the bulk of the cross that you may have to bear, that you will be comfortable with ‘you.’ You may, instead, realize that you took the other fork. You may or may not be satisfied with the results or with ‘you’ as a person. You may have followed someone else down that path with the expectation of some material reward, and the experience may have left you feeling very hollow.
If this is you, I will testify that you can return to that signpost and consider who you want to be. It is never too late.
Such was the conflict of one individual that I mention several times in the book. For the purposes of this lesson, we will call him “Elwood”. He was identified in court documents as the person who delivered the materials to the local newspaper that ultimately blew the lid off the project failures and misconduct that permeated the Peoplesoft project. He was initially a vocal and visible critic of this misconduct and the people responsible for it. Then, something changed ……… dramatically.
Elwood had begun his career at Chelan County Public Utility District working in another department. Eventually, he transferred to my staff and was tagged to participate in the Peoplesoft implementation. As the book describes, Elwood and other department personnel were frequently in my office making valid observations about project shortcomings and shenanigans. I did my best to put out these fires, but there was a lingering and growing sense of impending doom that continually hung over our heads.
We had to create activities to discuss issues and clear the air so we could move forward. Staff lunch meetings, team building retreats, training opportunities, and simple after hours phone conversations helped. In addition, beginning in the Spring, my Senior Database Administrator Brian Pyle and I, along with Elwood, played golf on Thursday evenings. We maintained a calendar entry for the weekly appointment called “continuous improvement”. These were times to laugh, poke fun, compliment each other and generally to concentrate on mental health. But, the realities of work always crept in. We made a habit of stopping afterward to imbibe a little and the discussion always turned to project issues. Brian and I have often reminisced about these evenings. Once we have exhausted the good-natured ridicule of our respective games, we always end up talking about the transition of Elwood.
As I mentioned, these outings began with all three of us in the same frame of mind: the project was a mess; there was no communication; we were being diminished; the inmates were running the asylum. But, we always reaffirmed our commitment to making the project successful and redeeming our reputation and standing within the organization. As the weeks went by, we began to notice a change in Elwood’s behavior. He started asking probing questions. Questions that could have potentially incriminating answers. Over time, it aroused suspicions that he may have been prepped. One very interesting circumstance is that he started to cheat …… to shave strokes. His apparent objective was to beat me in particular, as if this would soothe his conscience and affirm his superiority in whatever strategy he had decided to pursue. But the real “tell” was at our final “19th hole” gathering following our last round before I was terminated. Brian and I remember watching Elwood staring out the window mumbling to himself about “having a house to pay for” and “kids in college”, etc. He was literally devouring himself from the inside. He was the living epitome of an individual who had arrived at that fork in the road, and his particular “sense of self preservation” was kicking in.
There are a few revelations in the book that make it clear that our perception was that he had decided to comply. Only he knows for sure, but the evidence is pretty strong. There was the “ghost contractor” who was hired to search all of our email accounts for evidence of insubordination and/or sabotage. “Someone” had told management that they could probably find incriminating emails by conducting that search. Also, when Mark Bolz was demoted for his whistleblowing activities and criticism of the project, Elwood ended up being promoted and absorbing most of Mark’s staff. Concurrently, Elwood’s girlfriend at the time, an implementation contractor employee, was hired into the HR department at the utility. Elwood was still a PUD employee when my trial against the utility began five years later. He was listed as a witness for the defense with an anticipated date for his testimony. But, when Mark identified him on the stand as the individual who delivered the material documenting project shortcomings to the Wenatchee World, he was immediately removed from the witness list.
One intriguing question is: “if Elwood was the one to deliver the explosive documents to the newspaper, how did he survive at the utility?” Why wasn’t he persecuted like the rest of us? Our analysis is that his behavior during our golf outings makes it clear that he was aware that he would eventually be identified as the culprit. So, he began to assemble collateral. He wanted to make it clear that he was not part of the “brotherhood”, so to speak. He had seen the error of his ways! He initiated a visible feud with Mark. That severed that link. He (most likely) fed management information about conversations that he thought indicated sabotage. He probably also led them to believe that there was a treasure trove of evidence in the email archives that was there waiting to be harvested. He made himself available to gather evidence to fit their purposes. Whatever bargain Elwood struck with management, he was successful in salvaging his career. Until very recently, he was still with the utility.
I have run into Elwood several times on visits back to the Wenatchee Valley where all of this transpired. In those times I have been in close proximity to him, he has always wanted to converse. Although I have been cordial, I have always declined for several reasons. First, it is the only behavior that I have that can make it clear that I am still displeased with his decision. Also, I believe that he is reaching out in order to soothe his own conscience and I don’t feel compelled to grant him that. Lastly, but perhaps most important, I need to think about my own mental health.
On one of those occasions, Deanna and I were with our middle son and his wife. He asked me why I did not visit longer with the “guy who waived at me across the room” that I used to work with. I reminded him of who Elwood was and it immediately became obvious to him. This particular son has always chided me about being too much of a “boy scout” and instilling those values in my children. Every time he has confronted similar over-bearing or underhanded individuals in his very successful career he has always feigned lamentation that he descended from a moral ethicist. Actually, I think he is very comfortable with it. But, as I reminded him of who Elwood was, and we naturally evolved into discussing other characters of that period, he made a bold observation. He said, “You know dad, 90% of the people in the world would make the same decision he did”. Unfortunately, he may be right.
Happy Independence Day! Stay Courageous,