“These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. The “it” he referenced was Donald Trump’s January 27, 2017, executive order concerning immigration. “They should either get with the program or they can go.”

Get with the program or go! Who among us hasn’t at some time or another wanted to say that? It’s a thought that may provide comfort in times of uncertainty, turmoil, and change. But does it really represent good leadership? My short answer: not even close.

In my recently published book Discourse on Leadership, I analyze prevailing attitudes toward resistance and obedience on the part of followers to the direction of leaders. I point to Chester Barnard’s classic 1938 study of the functions of an executive, in which he noted that for organizations to achieve their goals, individual members would be required, to some extent, to subordinate themselves to the collective. That modifier, to some extent, offers a powerful insight for all executive leaders.

Acceptance of a common set of organizational goals will never be universal. Inevitably, organizational members will have differences. A multiplicity of voices and diversity of perspectives can enrich internal dialogue and enhance organizational responsiveness. When employees work toward goals they believe in, they are likely to engage in problem solving behaviors. Coercion and threats achieve nothing positive for the organization and its leaders.

Organizational leaders work to set strategy for their companies, and expect creative, enthusiastic, and competent effort to help achieve the company’s strategic goals. “I do give people the right to argue and challenge,” said Archie Norman, the one-time CEO of a major supermarket chain in the middle of drastic upheaval. “But I simply won’t tolerate any deviation around basic values and strategy.”[1]

But Spicer’s “it” in his statement clarifies the intent. Not: We expect government employees to work toward the safety and security of the country; but: We expect government employees to support this particular order. Effective response to a dynamic, challenging environment demands flexibility and openness to divergent opinions; a commitment to ultimate goals along with a healthy willingness to question, debate, even resist particular tactics. Coercion and threat stifle rather than encourage diversity, disagreement, and even dissent. Organizational effectiveness is lessened rather than enhanced.

And when the tactics themselves are thought to be illegal or unethical, responsible followers have a positive duty to speak up.

[1] Archie Norman quoted in Bert Spector, Implementing Organizational Change: Theory into Practice (New Jersey: Pearson, 2013), 21

Bert A. Spector

Associate Professor, International Business and Strategy