While exemplary leaders must clarify their own values, first and foremost, conflicts can arise when those individual values come in direct conflict with other important organizational and societal values. Consider how this type of conflict plays out in the recent award-winning film, The Post.
It’s 1971 and the New York Times has just started to publish leaked classified reports on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. What come to be known as the Pentagon Papers, these reports implicate key members of the U.S. government at the very highest levels for lying to the American public, and in maintaining ongoing troop deployment when all the evidence was clear that the war was completely unwinnable. Under threat of legal liability, it becomes known that The Times is facing criminal charges brought against them by the U.S. Attorney General that could put the paper in serious jeopardy.
At the same time, the Washington Post obtains copies of the same documents, putting the heiress and publisher of the paper, Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep), in the position of having to make a very tough decision: Should she also publish the leaked reports in spite of the threat of legal action? Should she listen to the advice of those around her who see such a step as too risky and one that threatens the interests of the newspaper and the staff? Should she consider the potential threats to her own interests as she would most probably be held liable and perhaps face years in prison if she was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act?
It is a very tough decision and one that represents a deep value-based struggle. The very existence of the newspaper is under threat and yet Graham has long held a deep commitment to a free press and the sanctity of the First Amendment. She also heads an organization that has consistently pledged to uphold the values of credibility and transparency—both to its subscribers and its staff.
In the end, Graham stands up against the threats of fines, severe economic losses to the paper, and potential imprisonment. She keeps her personal values and those of the Post completely aligned as she puts the Practice of Model the Way into action:
She clarified her values and used her voice to affirm shared values;
and she set the example by aligning actions with those shared values.
The Post is art telling a real-world account of the tough challenges leaders can face. The drama is intense and the depiction of the battle between media and government is well documented. Most importantly, the role of the leader and the risks she faces in making tough value-based choices is a great example of how an exemplary leader who Models the Way inspires loyalty and makes a difference in the world.
Hesham Ezzat, CPLP, is a Trained Facilitator of The Leadership Challenge® working toward facilitator certification. Currently an independent leadership development trainer and coach, he brings more than 15 years of experience leading sales teams for peak performance in the pharmaceutical field. Hesham holds certifications as a trainer and coach from the Metacoaching Foundation, ATD, and others, and has worked with major companies throughout the Middle East—including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Yemen—developing exemplary leaders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.