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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

When Leadership and Whistleblowing meet

(AP Photo/Christof Stache)

(AP Photo/Christof Stache)

Ann Skeet

Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

History has offered plenty of compelling stories about whistleblowers from all levels of organizations and governments. It may well record the September 2018 op-ed the New York Times published from a senior government official in the Trump administration as one of the most noteworthy. The Trump presidency has generated a manic news cycle as both the numbers of issues and the players involved have exploded when compared to other American presidential administrations. Yet this op-ed still manages to stand out.

The story’s ability to capture mindshare is due, at least in part, to two factors. First, the whistleblower is aiming at the highest level of leadership in our country. Second, he is giving us all an up close and personal look at an ethical dilemma at the heart of leadership itself.

The ethical tension points in whistleblowing are documented and have been studied for many decades in both business and government settings.  A succinct set of definitions about the act, the actor and these points of tension are synthesized in a Journal of Business Ethics article by J. Vernon Jensen, written in 1987. He offers the following definitions of the act and actor:  Whistleblowing is a communication act which is intentional, responsive, accusatory, public, support seeking, via various media, refutational, straining a contractual agreement. A whistleblower is someone who is a single person, subordinate to the accused, well informed, an insider, greatly agitated, highly motivated, a participant turned judge and perceived to be a traitor or a hero.[i]

The act of deciding to blow the whistle on some corrupt activity embodies personal leadership. The individual deciding to pursue this path likely examines carefully how well they have followed policy and procedure and explores why they are doing what they are doing. If a person takes these steps, he is less likely to be acting impulsively or from a place of ego. Often, in fact, the whistleblower acts even though he realizes he might pay significant personal cost for doing so. And often, he struggles to understand why no one else before him has decided to speak up. A recent Financial Times article with famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, relates this aspect well.[ii]

Ellsberg first and later Mark Felt, known as Deep Throat for many years, initially chose to make their disclosures confidentially and to have them be reported by newspapers. The difference here is that the New York Times has allowed the whistleblower to speak himself, in his own words, through the Op-Ed pages. Regardless, there is still the typical divided response—some see the piece as an act of heroism, others the act of a traitor.  The person who wrote the op-ed had a choice—he or she could have confided in a news reporter and sought to have their story verified and reported as news as Ellsberg and Felt did.  It is easier for people who have been in such hot seats to recognize a fundamental, existential crisis that can accompany leadership. Perhaps this person feels his chances of being seen as a leader are higher if he takes responsibility for his perspective directly, even if anonymously. 

The personal sacrifice many leaders are asked to make in the name of serving as a leader effectively is to undermine their personal reputation as a leader, perhaps forever.  If the very act they feel they must take to serve the interests of the people they are leading is one that will outrage those people and have them feel misled, the dilemma is real and personal.

Increasingly, we find people in formal leadership positions in governments and organizations who act in ways that protect their own self-interests.  We ask why we don’t have the kinds of people we used to have serving in leadership positions. Often the people most well-equipped to lead are also well-equipped to understand what they really might have to give up to do so—their own reputation as a trustworthy person.


[i] Jensen, J.V. J Bus Ethics (1987) 6: 321. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00382941

[ii] https://www.ft.com/content/c7f058bc-d9b5-11e7-a039-c64b1c09b482

Sep 10, 2018

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