I was biking with my friends Eric and Adam, both far more skilled and experienced mountain bikers than I, on terrain that was slightly beyond my own skill. I thought I could do it.
I was wrong.
I suffered a pretty dramatic crash, falling down a ravine, flipping over a few times, and hitting my (helmeted) head on a tree. Eventually, I ended up in the emergency room. But not before riding another hour.
Everything turned out fine, but continuing after my crash was a poor decision. Not only was I riding injured, but, because I was tight with fear, I fell many more times.
Why didn’t I stop? I wish I could say it was bravery but, the truth is, it was nothing of the kind. I kept riding, quite simply, because Eric and Adam kept riding.
There are a host of tangled reasons, of course: I didn’t want to disrupt their ride or feel like a wimp who couldn’t handle a few falls, or give up on something that I started. But the real reason? I continued because they did.
It turns out that I’m not alone. The research shows that, even as adults, we tend to conform to the behaviors of those around us. If your colleagues take sick days, then you’ll start taking them too. If your colleagues are messy, you’ll become more messy too.
Which is not such a big deal, really. Until it is.
By now you probably know that, for the past seven years, Volkswagen has been installing software in diesel cars to manipulate emissions tests and illegally sidestep pollution standards. They’ve been lying to millions of consumers.
When Michael Horn, head of Volkswagen Group of America, testified at a recent congressional hearing, he said that he believed only “a couple of software engineers” were responsible.
Seriously? Only a couple? As of 2014, Volkswagen employed 583,000 people. Surely more than two people knew about this deception. Why didn’t anybody say anything?
I’ve written before about how aggressive goal setting can lead to cheating, lying, and misdirected efforts. And certainly we’ve heard that Volkswagen’s culture was brutally focused on achieving their goals..
But seven years and 11 million cars later, you would think that someone would say something. But they didn’t. Because saying something, when nobody else is saying anything, is really, really hard.
Still, that’s what leadership calls us to do. Leadership is the willingness to move in a different direction than others. If we want to lead, then the real question — for you and me — is how can we resist the pull of conformity and stand courageously in truth and right? How can we live the values that make us and our colleagues trustworthy?
1. The first step is to have clear, strong, and committed values. What do you believe in? And how resolutely are you willing to stand behind those beliefs? Are you willing to be vulnerable? To be embarrassed? To be disliked? To be fired? Powerful, trustworthy leaders answer yes to all of those questions.
2. The next step is to want to see what is going on around you.