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Whistleblowers and Trust: Revealing Courageous Leadership

Issue 164, June 13, 2024

Who do we trust in the public forum? It’s hard to judge with cascades of misinformation and intentional disinformation swirling around on the internet, in the courts and at the rallies. It’s also hard to identify any public heroes in a polarized society.  One person’s champion is another’s enemy. To say it’s confusing is an understatement. Psychology Today describes heroes as individuals who give us hope, energize us, heal us, impart wisdom, are role models for morality, offer safety and protection, give us meaning and purpose, provide social connection and reduce loneliness, help individuals achieve personal goals, and help society achieve societal goals. It’s an ambitious list but it could become a personal playbook for everyone to lead a mindful, compassionate life.

Speaking of heroes, we’ve noticed that whistleblowers have been making headlines recently. Courageous individuals have resigned from well-respected brands over ethical principles. We feel a review of courage in leadership is due for a review, with a focus on the vagaries we face with the added pressure of AI, which incidentally is coming to the new iPhone via OpenAI. Yes, even Apple has succumbed to aligning with the current market leader. The impact of that innovation is a topic for another day.


If you’ve been tracking media news, you may have read that The Washington Post CEO Will Lewis “reportedly tried to kill a story about his alleged involvement in a UK phone hacking scandal coverup, offering an NPR reporter an interview in exchange for squashing the forthcoming article.” (CNN) And in those same headlines, Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee left the paper over concerns about suppressing coverage of Lewis’s phone hacking activities.  In a classic moment of hubris, Lewis addressed the paper’s staff with this self-serving statement, “So, time for some humility from me, I need to improve how well I listen and how well I communicate so that we all agree more clearly where urgent improvements are needed and why.” (The New York Times) Great sentiment, a little too late. We have to wonder how much trust Lewis can engender in a staff of employees trained to question everything and everyone. We say Lewis is leading with entitlement, narcissism and wearing those blinders we so often write about. One can only imagine the cynicism of the staff in how they will continue under his leadership. Remember our issue on rage and anger? Perhaps Lewis should take a read.

As students of leadership strategy, we say Lewis and his team are at loggerheads in terms of shared purpose, the Post’s market orientation, and credibility. It has set up a challenging future for the Post, its reputation, and its trust with its workforce and readers.

The mess at Boeing cost CEO Dave Calhoun his job. But it was worse for Boeing whistleblower Joshua Dean. “A former quality auditor at Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems and one of the first whistleblowers to allege Spirit leadership had ignored manufacturing defects on the 737 MAX (Seattle Times) was found dead. Dean was a voice among many. “Boeing has been the subject of 32 whistleblower complaints with the workplace safety regulator in the United States during the past three years, newly obtained documents reveal, amid mounting scrutiny of standards at the beleaguered aircraft maker. The figures shed light on the extent of alleged retaliation by Boeing against whistleblowers as the Virginia-based company is facing mounting questions over its safety record and standards. (Aljazeera) How does this American icon of an organization get away with this?

Although losing a job and death are admittedly dramatic outcomes of standing strong with moral principles, as we have reported, Bill George, Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, states, “Courageous individuals take risks that go against the grain of their organizations. They make decisions with the potential for revolutionary change in their markets. Their boldness inspires teams, energizes customers, and positions organizations as leaders in societal change.”

Courage is not a skill learned in a classroom; it is mastered through life experiences and personal and professional risk-taking. George adds, “If organizations are managed without courageous leadership and courageous individuals, then R&D programs, product pipelines, investments in emerging markets, and employees’ commitment to the company’s mission all wither. These organizations can slip into malaise and may eventually fail, even if their leaders move on and avoid being held accountable.”

The Courage of AI Whistleblowers 

As AI proliferates and continues to be loosely regulated, it has far-reaching influence over our professional and personal lives. It also has a massive trust issue. The Harvard Business Review cites the AI trust gap “can be understood as the sum of the persistent risks (both real and perceived) associated with AI.” The gaps can be closed when “a person is willing to entrust a machine to do a job that otherwise would have been entrusted to qualified humans. It is essential to invest in analyzing this second, under-appreciated gap — and in what can be done about it — if AI is to be adopted widely.”

What’s more, the Federal Trade Commission reports that “consumers are voicing concerns about AI, while businesses are worried about several near- to long term issues.” (HBR) It has distilled the 12 AI risks that are among the most commonly cited across both groups:

  1. Disinformation
  2. Safety and security
  3. The black box problem
  4. Ethical concerns
  5. Bias
  6. Instability
  7. Hallucinations in LLMs
  8. Unknown unknowns
  9. Job loss and social inequalities
  10. Environmental impact
  11. Industry concentration
  12. State overreach

To provide more context, consider perhaps the most egregious in the litany of whistleblowing narratives are the current outcries from the tech community. Recently, “13 current and former employees at OpenAI and other prominent artificial intelligence companies warned that the technology poses grave risks to humanity calling on companies to implement sweeping changes to ensure transparency and foster a culture of public debate.” (The Washington Post)

The threats of AI systems to become autonomous have been covered extensively. We are already confronted by AI’s agency to accelerate inequality and increase the level of misinformation. The complaint states that “Though these risks could be mitigated, corporations in control of the software have strong financial incentives to limit oversight.” (The Washington Post) It’s not always about the workforce maintaining personal agency, shaping the future and protecting humanity. The AI risks maximize short-term monetary gains, even though the companies know better about the larger implications and potential impacts on stakeholders.

Leaders are historically measured by their ability to deliver a bottom-line result to meet all stakeholders’ expectations. In a public company, the bottom line is essential to maintaining or growing the stock price to deliver a return on investment for the shareholders and takes precedence over all other activities and goals. In a private company like OpenAI, the motivations may be more veiled, and transparency is murkier.

Following a North Star

We know AI is an easy target. And coverage of the game-changing technology sells news. We want to focus on a side of AI in this newsletter that may not be grabbing headlines. The hype and potential promise of AI touches on our very human behaviors in context of transformation and change. We write about this often as a voice for reason in the complexity of transformation.

Behaviors among individuals form a system that self organizes into organizations and societies. How we act or don’t, what we see or don’t see, and what we know or don’t know only influence the present. The actions of courageous whistleblowers can envision a potential future in many more ways than we might admit. We applaud those who have the courage to go public and take a stand. And we applaud all the unsung heroes who seek to hold us accountable.

Our concern is about the guardrails or lack of them that oversee how AI is and will be used responsibly.  It’s worth reviewing the actual complaint of the 13 “whistleblowers” because it illustrates the criticality of following a North Star and leading with courage. According to The Washington Post, the employees said that “absent government oversight, AI workers are the ‘few people’ who can hold corporations accountable. They said that they are hamstrung by ‘broad confidentiality agreements,’ and that ordinary whistleblower protections are ‘insufficient’ because they focus on illegal activity, and the risks that they are warning about are not yet regulated.” What a Catch-22.

The 13 suggested four principles to allow for greater transparency and whistleblower protections.

  1. “Commitment not to enter into or enforce agreements that prohibit criticism of risks
  2. A call to establish an anonymous process for current and former employees to raise concern
  3. Supporting a culture of criticism
  4. A promise to not retaliate against current and former employees who share confidential information to raise alarms after other processes have failed”

We suggest that these recommendations should spark a candid conversation within every organization among its leaders, stakeholders, and employees to review its own organizational policies and procedures to ensure it is enabling an open, transparent, and supportive culture that embraces active listening to criticism.

Leading with Courage

We want to reiterate the importance of everyday courage, particularly in times of increasing ambiguity and uncertainty. We need to enable open dialogue without judgment across organizations and society for change and transformation to be successful. In that endeavor, we cannot wear blinders and overlook the real problem we are seeking to solve.

Courage transcends obvious organizational leadership and needs to be supported across all activities, upstream, downstream and cross-stream. Courage to share honest information, feedback, and constructive criticism.

What is generally overlooked is that collective intelligence and courage are what society needs to evolve and advance. Risk is a key factor in progress. Some risks have led to disastrous results, and others have led to rapid advances that changed society with innovators worshipped as idols. What moves a paradigm change is courage across society and organizations with a shared purpose. Examples include a societal or business problem that requires a solution, human rights violations that need individuals to come together, and a natural disaster response where a collective needs to operate as a well-oiled machine to save lives, recover and reestablish some new normal.

The uber skill that is a reality check for every organization is critical thinking. The practice reveals gaps in workplace policies, and it also discloses shortfalls of taking stakeholders for granted and assuming they think in lockstep with leadership and the organization. Whistleblowers are useful, but we help organizations operate ethically and mindfully so that there is no need for such a complaint.

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