Courage When Leaders Abuse Power

Three prominent founder CEOs have recently been removed from their companies due to sexual misconduct. These men are Roger Ailes of Fox News, Travis Kalanick of Uber, and most recently Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Company. This abuse of power must stop.

Ailes and Weinstein were actually removed only after major news outlets reported the misconduct, which had begun long before yet was stifled through financial settlements with victims. Kalanick was removed after mounting allegations that he did little to stop a workplace culture that allowed for sexual harassment.

There is no acceptable reason for sexual harassment or misconduct to exist in the workplace. Yet far too many men in positions of power continue to take advantage of women. To change, it will take not only the courage of women to speak up but, perhaps more importantly, the courage of men to challenge those in power.

The misuse of power is unacceptable and these leaders should be held accountable. And the people working around them should be more courageous in stopping it. While Ailes and Weinstein both had allegations of sexual misconduct for decades, their corporate boards hesitated to make changes earlier because they feared such dynamic leaders couldn’t be adequately replaced. They put profits before people.

“Such uncertainties may explain why boards often miss the moment when a founder’s comportment goes from a foible to a liability,” as writer John Foley points out in a recent New York Times article. “Once they do, the grubby handprints are hard to scrub away.”

And when we accept sexually aggressive behavior as simply “locker room talk,” it minimizes the emotional impact and enables the potential physical harm it can lead to. If the collective community doesn’t categorically reject the behavior, it can be perceived as tacitly condoned.

“The behavior is inexcusable, but the abuse of power familiar,” wrote actress Meryl Streep in a recent statement. “Each brave voice that is raised, heard and credited by our watchdog media will ultimately change the game.”

Women already feel a sense of guilt or shame when they are put into such a position. When other women and men try to ignore or normalize it, we continue to defer taking action. The fact is, sexual harassment never was acceptable back “when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”

Little wonder that women are not adequately represented in leadership positions throughout politics and business. When men in positions of power continue to disrespect women there can be no parity. If we don’t collectively reject and condemn sexual harassment whenever it is seen, we will never get beyond the repression of women in the workplace.

Regarding Weinstein, Lena Dunham wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article: “His behavior, silently co-signed for decades by employees and collaborators, is a microcosm of what has been happening in Hollywood since always and of what workplace harassment looks like for women everywhere.”

She goes on to say that men need to take responsibility for this. It takes courage for the women who are victims to speak up and it takes courage from the men who remain silent. Because when you don’t speak up, you are complicit in the behavior.

Dunham is absolutely right in that we men need to hold our friends, co-workers and those in power over us accountable for the things they say and do in objectifying women. And we need to challenge their values, their language and their actions.

Let’s not sit idly by while powerful bullies take advantage of other people. Instead, stand up to the unfair and reprehensible behavior toward women in the workplace. When you see leaders abuse power by taking advantage of others, be courageous and speak out.

In the words of Albert Einstein: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

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