Sunday, February 25, 2018

On personal attacks

It’s happened too many times.  I get a call or a request to meet from a colleague who wants advice on how to cope with being publicly attacked by someone with an agenda.  My colleague explains that the attacker is using legal action, political pressure, and media in the attack.  The attacker is never content to make the attack alone, and seeks to gain support from many others.  The attacks are personal and intended to damage the colleague who has done nothing except to be perceived as a threat by this attacker.  Seems contemptible that anyone would do that to another person, and you may be thinking that there must be more happening than I’m telling.  After all, it’s hard to believe that someone would unfairly attack another person without cause.  And if that does happen, it must only occur rarely. 


I wish that I believed that these are unusual circumstances, but I’ve learned from my own and others’ experiences that when you choose to be a leader, the threat of unwarranted personal attack is not uncommon.  In practice, it’s become an expected part of public life for anyone who seeks to advocate for change or lead.  I know few leaders who haven’t experienced it. 


I’m not talking about leaders who make significant mistakes and are excoriated for their errors.  The celebrity who harasses women.  The prelate who puts personal gain over believers’ needs.  The government official who lies and connives for personal gain.  Those happen, but they’re different than when a leader is attacked unfairly and systematically by someone who has something to gain from harassing that leader.  I also don’t mean angry comments that somebody in an organization makes when they disagree with leaders.  The phenomenon I’m describing is continued, relentless and focused on harm.  It’s obsessive and seeks to coalesce opinion to lead toward damaging actions against someone. 


I remember when I first witnessed this.  It was the mid-1960s, and I lived in a community where the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society was active.  In a 1966 report filed by the FBI on the JBS, the then president of the California State Board of Education, Thomas W. Braden, is quoted as saying that the JBS targeted that community as one of 10 in the state to focus its actions.  One of their typical strategies was to attack school board members, and that’s what happened in my community.  In the FBI’s report on the JBS, Braden uses the example of what happened there to warn of the devastating effects of the JBS’ attack tactics.


The board member, Edward Newman, had served on the school board from 1958 to 1966 when the JBS targeted him for recall.  He was, they claimed, too liberal and showed communist sympathies, a charge that still had meaning in that community.  Even in 1966, a significant portion of the community was still in the thrall of anti-communist, postwar nationalism, so stoking that fear was not difficult.  JBS members created a campaign to have him removed.  The campaign was filled with half-truths and lies told by a group seeking to discredit a man whose beliefs were contrary to theirs.  Underlying the entire case was an anti-Semitism that was never spoken publicly, but was whispered behind closed doors.  Despite his years of prior service and his impeccable integrity and care for the community, their innuendo and attacks succeeded in ousting Newman.  As a 14-year-old boy who admired the Newman family and also knew the families of his accusers, I was shocked.  His children were exemplary students and human beings, in readily seen contrast to those of his accusers.  To see someone so dedicated and so willing to serve treated so poorly was a lesson for me in what evil looks like.


In watching these situations happen over the years, I find that they follow a common pattern.  The playbook for mounting a propaganda campaign against a leader hasn’t changed since I observed the John Birch Society 50 years ago.  These campaigns rely on false statements that are spread quietly at first and, as rumors spread, they become commonly repeated.  Anyone with any complaint soon finds a voice in the campaign.  With time, and as the rumors continue to build, comes a more formalized campaign of written documents that contain just enough truth to make them plausible.  With that documentation comes requests for legal and/or administrative action from authorities or voters.  Concurrently, especially as administrative avenues are exhausted, the campaign also seeks to engage information distribution venues – news outlets, e-mail, social media, etc.  When one charge is disproven or one venue for distribution of falsehoods is closed, the attackers open another one.  The point is to incessantly attack from every possible angle.  With the present prevalence of the many avenues where people can self-publish their ideas widely, they always have a new venue.  It’s a shotgun approach that fires volleys in a general direction and sees what hits the target.


Having seen this so personally in my childhood, I understood that unprovoked and unfair attacks can happen to any leader, and that those attacks can be effective.  Learning that there are people who think nothing of harming another person to further their own needs was shocking.  Understanding how common this is took me a while to discover, though.  It was not until adulthood that I started to see how common these situations are for leaders.  I saw this happen to the principal of the school where I taught when other administrators in the district wrote unfair evaluations that could bring disciplinary action and dismissal.  I saw it as people filed spurious complaints of mistreatment by their managers to forestall disciplinary actions against themselves.  I saw it in campaigns that distorted a manager’s policies or statements to make the case to a school board or a college president for that manager’s dismissal so that the accusers protected their own position.  I saw it in whisper crusades that used racist tropes to make claims against someone’s character and professionalism as a way of deflecting the accusers’ own misdeeds. 


I’ve seen good people, people whose integrity I know to be beyond reproach, battling these actions regularly and consistently throughout my career.  Their only mistake:  taking an action that someone didn’t like, at a moment when the adversary felt no pull of conscience in creating a smear campaign.  Because the issues that typically draw an attack involve personnel or other confidential issues, the leader often can’t respond openly.  In return, she/he is accused of being secretive and uncommunicative.  The attacker often makes unsubstantiated claims that feed misperceptions while the accused is forced to remain professional and avoid attacking in return.  The attacker distorts truths with impunity while the attacked tries to counter half-truths with often complex answers that the issues demand – complexity that is often not as readily understood as half-truths. 


Maybe I just happen to know people with problems and maybe this isn’t as widespread as I perceive it.  But when my colleagues call me for advice, I’m never surprised to hear how the actions unfolded.  I have these discussions far too often with far too many leaders.  To anyone who is attempting to counter sustained attacks, I often offer the same advice:  Seek legal counsel if needed; look for others with similar experiences to help you navigate the issues; rely on your allies to affirm who you are, but don’t allow anyone to define you; be certain about who you are and what you’ve done; if you’ve made an error, own it and move on; etc.  These are the bits of advice that leaders all offer to our colleagues because these are the bits of advice that got us through our own challenges.  But they’re never enough to counteract the immediate pressures of what is typically a very emotional moment in any person’s career.  Being able to understand what is happening, process it, and respond to it, while keeping those emotions balanced with taking appropriate action, is hard.  I know and have met people who are unable to continue their careers after experiencing these attacks; or, if they do, the experience can leave them afraid of making difficult decisions that would offend anyone and, thus, avoid being the target of attack again.


It’s interesting to me that, in all of the reading I’ve done about leaders and leadership, this isn’t part of the leadership experience that is openly discussed.  People who’ve experienced unwarranted attacks share knowing nods as they talk to others with similar experiences.  In pairs or small groups, colleagues empathize with others and share the knowledge they’ve gained.  But despite the pervasiveness I’ve noticed, this isn’t ever a subject of a conference, or a broad strand of research, or the topic of journalistic inquiry.  Facing scurrilous attack is a difficult fact of being a leader for many of the leaders I know, but it’s rarely (maybe never?) acknowledged as part of the leadership experience.  And leaders often can’t discuss this openly because it involves the kinds of confidentially issues that, if broached, lead to more issues. 


Aside from being an empathetic listener who’s willing to share my own experiences, I never have immediate solutions for my colleagues.  The resolution for them comes with time, a persistence that’s equal to the attack, a patience and commitment that’s stronger than the attack, and a community to help weather the attack.  Although I can’t offer a fix, I do know that we need to pull this topic away from the shadows and have discussions about it.  If this is as common as my experience leads me to believe, then we do need to have conference strands that focus on it, it needs to be a topic of discussion in courses of study that prepare leaders, and maybe even the media should look at it as a potential topic.  Because I believe firmly that new knowledge comes from open dialogue and not by hiding our experiences, I believe that ongoing discussions can lead to solutions. 


So that’s my request on this.  Let’s talk – as openly as possible to provide a venue for discussing what happens and how these situations progress.  I know that people often can’t openly discuss the particulars of their circumstances because of legal and ethical considerations.  But let’s talk about the ways in which false and defamatory attacks impact us as leaders.  Let’s talk about the ways in which these attacks are carried out.  Let’s talk about what to do about them.  Let’s talk about what kinds of support that a leader should have when this happens.  At least, in acknowledging that this happens, we’ll reduce the isolation that people feel when they experience these assaults.  At best, we can hope that the tactics and strategies that attackers use will become more obvious and less accepted.  With an open light on the practices, the openness can help to balance the emotional impacts and provide a path for leaders to take effective action that helps their organization and then progress in the work they have to do.