Leadership Mistakes

Don't Let Patience Turn Into Bitterness

Axel Meierhoefer asked:

The subheading to this article could read:

“How the little guy gets squashed by the establishment”

You might say: “So what’s new. We know that that happens all the time.” – And you are probably right.

Let’s start at the beginning: This morning I was sitting at the breakfast table reading the newspaper when I ran across an AP-article about an accountant in a small town bank. The story said that he is a teacher of accounting now, and that he uses his own story to teach his students.

Don’t you sometimes hope the little guy wins?

Are you sometimes frustrated that the establishment, being it the city administration or government, a corporation, or a large organization seems to get away with things you, as a private person, never would?

Not all battles are the same, and not all of them are worth fighting. In one of our communities here a single student wrote a letter to his school demanding that the paintings and sculptures of a warrior Indian be removed form campus. He feels they are offensive and portrait Indians as war-mongering. The school board recently decided to keep the name “Warrior” but remove all signs of the Indian head from everywhere, including letter head, athletic gear, everything. After 80 years of tradition and pride to be a Warrior, one student’s letter is enough to get the whole community up in arms. In my view it’s a huge waste of energy and time.

I myself am involved in a fight on a smaller scale. As a former employee of a company that went bankrupt, a group of my friends and I are still hoping to get some of the compensation the company owes us. We have been waiting and fighting for 3 years now.

Then there are the other fights, like the one I read about in the paper, of the teacher named Dave Welch. In that case I really hope the little guy wins. Here is what happened. During times of massive corporate scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, etc. Mr Welch refused to sign the financial statement of the bank he was working for. As the accountant he has to attest with his signature that all the numbers are correct. He suspected that things weren’t all clean, and so he didn’t sign.

The federal government, in the form of the US Congress, had passed a law to protect whistle blowers, like Mr. Welch, from repression in case they found or suspected something was wrong. The article I read in the paper this morning speaks about the fact that the protection as originally intended doesn’t really seem to exist. Of a total of 1091 cases, the little guys only got a favorable ruling 17 times; that’s less than 2% – some protection, if you ask me.

As you can imagine, after being fired from his bank for not signing the financial statements, Mr. Welch didn’t find work in his little town. Even when he applied further away the fact that he was a whistleblower has been seen as a risk for employers. He had to sell his farm, lost all his savings, and now is a teacher instead of an accountant. He did the right thing under the law. He spoke up when he suspected wrong doing, but nobody is willing to enforce this law. The courts have ordered the bank 4 times so far to pay Mr. Welch his back pay and rehire him, at least temporary, or give him a severance package.

Each time the bank refused and appealed the decisions. This case is probably dragging on for years to come.

Does that mean I advocate to keep your mouths shut and overlook blatant mistakes or fraudulent behaviors? No, not at all. What I think anybody in this kind of a situation needs to be aware is this: Don’t expect any help because the laws passed in the last 8 years are predominantly in favor of business. Even in cases where they appear to protect the employee, they get interpreted by government administrators in ways that avoid consequences.

If we are lucky, we might get better government after the next presidential elections. Even if that happens, it will take years to correct the many problems that have come from an overly pro-business atmosphere.

I am a business and leadership coach and consultant. I depend on clients form this niche. Still, I believe we need to recognize our core values and apply the rules and laws equally for all. A bank can increase it’s legal budge from $100.000 per year to $400.000 per year to fight a little guy like Mr. Welch. Good leadership and working with a good coach and consultant would mean to find a way to solve the issue, review the data, admit wrong ding, if that is warranted, and safe the legal fees. With the legal fees the bank spend the last 5 years they could have helped a lot of their customers and create new larger profits.

I believe there is a great lesson to be learned from this story: When you know you are right and you are patient enough to look, you will find others who agree and will take a chance on you. Here is how the story ends:

Mr. Welch applied for a job as a teacher at Franklin University in Ohio. The article reads: “At the end of the interview Mr. Welch was shown into the office of Paul Otto, the schools president at the time.

Mr. Otto is a blunt-spoken long-ago Marine who sits on two corporate boards. He’d heard about Mr. Welch. The case, Mr. Otto said, reminded him of an article he’d written a few months before the interview, on the need to challenge corporate authority.

He invited Mr. Welch to take a seat across a coffee table in a desk-less office. “Let me ask you,” Mr. Otto said, “did you refuse to certify the banks financial statements or did you sign them and then blow the whistle?”

“I refused to sign,” Mr. Welch said, unsure which was the right answer. It was good enough for Mr. Otto, whose article preaches this message:

“The greatest failures resulting from unchallenged authority have occurred when people reporting directly to the CEO lacked the courage to challenge their boss.”

Mr. Welch got the job.”

As mentioned at the beginning, he could have gotten frustrated and bitter with the justice system, the labor department, the community that expelled him, although he didn’t do anything wrong.

Good thing he didn’t. He is still patiently hoping that the intent of the law will ultimately give him the back-pay the courts have ordered the bank to pay several times by now. More importantly, he is using his story to encourage other future accountants to be vigilant and stand up for what is right.

Having strong confidence, the willingness to stand up for what is right, and be firm in your convictions isn’t just a lesson for a little guy, an employee or a lower level manager, but for executives and leaders among all of us. And just because things might not go our way immediately doesn’t mean we should give up. I hope very few people have to give up their farm, their job, their community, and their friends, to fight for what is right.

Mr. Welch’s story inspires me to keep going and not turning bitter. I hope anybody being involved in similar situations will see that being strong, full of positive energy and patience is the source of the power it takes to persevere.

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