Author of The Bully’s Trap Andrew Faas gave this commencement address in June 2011.
By many standards, I have lived a charmed a successful life. Like everyone, there have been setbacks, challenges, and personal tragedies, all of which helped define who I am and what I stand for.
Six years ago, being diagnosed with leukemia and given a life sentence was one of those challenges.
Were it not for a miracle drug, which turned what was a fatal condition to a chronic one, I would be dead today. This experience forced me to reflect on my reason for being, and discovering that, notwithstanding the success enjoyed, there was a void, which was, really, having made a difference. What was missing was lack of purpose.
Today, my life is full of purpose, reflected in part through my philanthropy but, to a greater extent, it is putting a stop to what I believe to be an epidemic—bullying in the workplace.
There is no need for me to explain what bullying is and the devastating impact it has, other than to say bullying in schools shares many characteristics with bullying in the workplace. As there are similarities, there are also differences. The most significant is that the tactics are subtler and there are fewer avenues for people to exit from the situation.
Bullies are masters of deflection. Usually they discredit their targets until the targets become the villains. They “kiss up and kick down.” Because they are viewed as high performers, they are treated like heroes who garner more credibility than the target.
In analyzing the demise of companies such as Enron, AIG, and Lehman Brothers, a common characteristic was that their CEOs were also CBOs—Chief Bullying Officers.
The global financial meltdown could have been avoided had people in the know reported wrongdoings. They did not, largely for fear of being retaliated against. In most cases, whistleblowers are viewed as traitors and subject to bullying as punishment for their treason.
Bullying has always occurred, however, it shames me to say that, largely because of greed, my generation has systematically created dictatorial leadership, where fear substitutes for motivation and positive leadership.
We have allowed tyranny and domination to dictate the culture in which we work.
This is the sad legacy that my generation leaves to you.
For us it cannot be a question of “Can it be stopped?” It must be an assertion: “It must be stopped.” For it to be eliminated, everyone has a role to play.
Everyone graduating today will, at some point, become a bully, and/or be bullied and/or be a bystander.
If history is any indicator, only a small percent of you will become defenders of those who are bullied.
Where there has been genocide, which is the most extreme form of bullying, only a small percent of the population became witnesses and defenders of those who were targeted. Had the small percent been a mere 10 percent, the course of history would have had a different outcome.
The revolutions in the Middle East, with the overthrow of tyranny, is proof positive that the course of history can be changed, and serves as an inspiration to have the small percent become 10 percent.
Over your career, you will be faced with choices. The most difficult ones for you will be whether or not to be a witness and defender of those who are targeted, becoming part of the 10 percent.
This choice involves risk and requires courage. The risks of being a witness and defender are obvious. However, in making the risk assessment, consider the risk of not being that witness and defender.
Consider never having to say, “I could have prevented the ruin of my coworker’s career.”
Consider never having to say, “I could have prevented the break up of a family unit.”
Consider never having to say, “I could have helped avoid the demise of an organization.”
Consider never having to say, “I could have prevented a suicide or attempted suicide.”
Consider never having to say, “I could have prevented someone going postal and killing others.”
Mahatma Gandhi put it so well when he declared, “It is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.”
While this choice involves risk, it also yields rewards, the greatest of which is strengthening your sense of self, helping to make right what is wrong, and making the lives of others free and safe from the ravages of tyranny.
By becoming part of that 10 percent, you can change the course of history.