WE ARE FIVE years removed from the initial #MeToo tweet that focused attention on unwanted sexual abuse in the workplace. Yet just last month, USA Curling vigorously defended its decision to hire a CEO who allegedly ignored multiple abuse allegations while leading the U.S. women’s soccer league — before the sport association finally accepted his resignation in late October.  

Meanwhile, the entire leadership of Hockey Canada, including the CEO and board of directors, is being replaced for failure to address a sexual assault by members of the Canadian world junior team.

These sports administrators join Dan Price, the former CEO of Gravity Payments, Travis Kalancik of Uber and Robert Kotick of Activision Blizzard, who all allegedly allowed cultures of harassment and pervasive sexism to flourish in their organizations while they did nothing. Even five years into a movement that made visible pervasive sexism in the workplace, we continue to see individuals involved in these scandals withstand controversy and sometimes move into new leadership positions.

Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester is an associate professor of management at San Jose State University. (Courtesy photo)

In these cases, it seems that as long as performance remains satisfactory, the leader can remain until there is a groundswell of disapproval that forces the organizations to act. These actions require weeks of protracted outcry, whereas poor results — multiple losses or negative financials — can force leaders out within days. We can tie this back to our implicit leadership theories — we expect CEOs to be results-driven and in control, but may not act as quickly if it is a pervasive cultural issue. We can tie financial or performance losses directly to the leader’s actions; downfalls due to mistreatment of employees, women, protected classes, ethical failures, etc. introduce doubt into the leader’s span of control. The most dangerous aspect of this approach is taking too long to take action to protect players and employees from harm while also losing faith that any leader is perfect enough to uphold the high standards we set.

I have studied leaders and leadership development for 15 years through experimental approaches, observation studies, and field experiments. Through these studies and other published research, it is clear that the focus on leaders alone is unhealthy, because pinning our expectations for positive outcomes on one human is risky. Instead, we should focus on the leadership process — that means evaluating not just the leader, but the followers who choose to engage with that leader as well as the outcomes of the leadership actions. The followers are the ones that create meaningful change with their work product, their commitment, and even their courage to come forward with negative experiences. A leader that allows mistreatment to continue on their watch is more insidious because the entire organizational culture erodes.

Actress Alyssa Milano is credited with starting the #MeToo movement with a tweet she posted on Oct. 15, 2017.

To be sure, one might think that a career trajectory moving from the powerhouse of the U.S. Women’s national soccer team to a resource-limited U.S. Curling team was a step down. Some might say that is punishment enough for the leader. However, what about the U.S. Curlers? These athletes also deserve a leader who will listen to their complaints and advocate for a more inclusive environment where they can flourish. Let’s hope they gain a leader they deserve, a leader who will advocate for a positive organizational climate. If we think about the impact on followers and choose our leaders based on the culture and environment they build and reinforce with their actions, we can avoid hiring leaders who have illustrated with their actions that they cannot meet the moment.

We must look beyond the leader and celebrate leadership actions. This means stepping back to understand the situation, the followers, the company culture and the resulting changes due to the decisions made by all parties. We remember that every single one of us can engage in the leadership process with those around us to make positive changes. Instead of looking to leaders as special individuals who can alone guarantee positive performance, we recognize that we can all enact leadership — all it takes is making one small action in relation to others. The action is leadership, the outcome is what we should celebrate. There is no special birthright to leadership, it is each of our unique, lived experiences that can generate ideas that lead to positive change. 

About the author

Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester is an associate professor of management at San Jose State University and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.