• Date February 13, 2012
  • Author Fran Johnston

When I stood in the radiologist office and heard the news of my breast cancer, I wasn’t concerned about anyone else’s potential right to life. I was concerned about my own, actual, life. If I didn’t have health insurance at the time I wouldn’t have had that screening. I was young and without risk factors. Without early detection, I would be dead today—that is not hyperbole, it’s a fact.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure® has spent years and millions of dollars building a unified and powerful social movement, a “Komen Community,” fighting against breast cancer. The Komen Foundation itself is a powerful force for positive change. Literally, millions of women and men walk, run, raise and give money in a pink branded, “Race for the Cure.”

They do this because they want to find a cure for breast cancer, because they have a personal relationship with the disease, and because they want to be part of that pink-clad cadre of people actively doing “the right thing.” It is a movement built on the values of compassion—“we care,” inclusivity—“everyone can help and receive” and commonality—“breast cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

When you attend a rally, race or banquet, you see faces of every color and memorials of women who have the disease, or who died, being honored by their family and friends. It is an emotional afternoon, evening or three-day walk with these women never far from the minds of the participants. I don’t know about in the executive suite or boardroom, but on the streets, Komen stands for the 99%, not the 1%. Here in lies the betrayal and, hence, the outrage about recent decisions made by the CEO and her team.

Alignment to the Mission? No.

Komen’s promise is to provide access to preventive breast care to women who need it the most, and to work tirelessly to “end breast cancer forever.”  On January 31, 2012, Komen announced its decision to change its funding guidelines for allocation of funds generated by the community. As a result, no further funding would be given to:

1) Planned Parenthood programs to provide subsidized access to mammograms for poor women;

2) Institutions that do research on stem cells.

All hell broke loose with the news and the organization found itself on its proverbial back high heel. Denying poor women access to clinical breast exams and mammograms at Planned Parenthood was widely interpreted as a strategic move pushed by politically conservative people—most notably recently-hired Senior Vice President for Public Policy, Karen Handel– a defeated Republican candidate for Governor in Georgia who set her sights on punishing an old enemy in the anti-abortion movement. A second, related decision was also announced, albeit more quietly, to not fund stem cell research. The impact of this new policy is to cut off a promising stream of exploratory research that may actually find the cure we are all racing for.

Planned Parenthood and stem cell research are red flag issues for the political right, anyone with a television knows this.

When a leader of an organization makes decisions directly out of step with the organization’s espoused values, that they loudly and consistently promote, you have trouble—big trouble in this case. The irony here is that the pink-clad Komen Krusaders who are mad, are mad because they have been listening to and inspired by Komen: the shared values and the pink community. Other organizations would kill for this kind of engagement and attention. But what did Komen do? They made the two big mistakes so many other leaders of successful companies and organizations have done through the years: the Komen for the Cure leadership took their supporters for granted and are now having trouble admitting they did anything wrong.

Lack of Attunement Breeds Crisis of Confidence

Komen’s supporters are now thrown into disarray by a leadership team that got it wrong—and then wrong again.

  • How can an organization that is all about inclusivity—it is a fund-raising organization after all—decide to exclude a major vehicle for preventive screening services for poor women?
  • How can Komen raise literally millions and millions of dollars for research and then make politically-based decisions about stem cell research, effectively not-funding one of the most promising areas of innovative research?

The Krusaders can understand the need to make discernments based on quality of research or likelihood of finding meaningful contribution to finding a cure, but to say “stem cell” into today’s environment is to wave a red flag at a bull in a bullfight. It’s politics. For a CEO to pretend otherwise is not a reassuring expression of social awareness and to do so with a former gubernatorial candidate, who ran on a platform of getting rid of Planned Parenthood on your staff, and in charge of the decision, stretches the disingenuousness of your surprise at our reaction even farther. Who do you think the Krusaders are? We can read, we do have opinions, and you ask us for our time and money. Remember, the Komen Krusaders volunteer for you, they don’t pull a paycheck from you.

CEO Disease Is Now CEO Dis-ease

Komen is a story of a great organization that, despite having been built on the enthusiasm and concern of literally huhdreds of million dedicated volunteers, allowed a handful of highly compensated executives to make policy that, while defensible and logical in the boardroom, is utterly indefensible and counterproductive in the eyes of millions of others. The CEO Nancy G. Brinker may be suffering from CEO disease—a term Teleos has coined for instances when a CEO thinks she is attuned to the organization but is, in reality, badly out of sync and unaware of that fact.

Often such a CEO surrounds herself with like-minded people who agree with her and shield her from the bigger picture, which includes diverse perspectives. You may jump to a cynical conclusion that she doesn’t care what others think, but from her videos it seems she does, and in our experience CEOs usually do—to a point. So this is likely not a situation of heartless lack of concern, at least by her. She allowed herself to get isolated and insulated—never a good move for a leader.

So, where was everyone else at the top of the organization? Where was her team of executives, and where was the Board of Directors? It is clear not only from the actual decision, but from the next days after the crisis emerged, that they are missing in action. Crisis communications experts can and will debrief how the organization handled the next days.  It has already started.

A Movement Is More than an Organization

This crisis erupted as a result of serious disagreement about “what is the right thing to do” by powerful, emotionally engaged groups (employees, volunteers, the Board, the Executives, grant recipients, etc.) Conflict by definition is emotional. To try and mollify or obfuscate the emotions and complexity of the situation, is a mistake. Movements are powerful because of the shared emotions and beliefs of the people within them. Leadership is judged by the degree of perceived alignment between espoused values and action.

Traditional organizations can often rely on their hierarchy, structure and processes to manage through difficult times (frequently losing the hearts and minds of their employees along the way).

Whether organization or movement, or as with Komen, organization and movement, trouble occurs when the leader or leadership team is out of sync with the values, emotional reality, dreams and pains of the people who do the work—under-attend to the emotional reality of these different, powerful, constituencies at your own risk.

You don’t want to end up with an organization and no movement—that is the situation with many of our struggling, large organizations that are having trouble engaging their employees. Top down simplistic responses to upset—“get back to work, “we will get through this,” “you matter,” “it was a policy decision,” don’t work in today’s world of internet-driven communication, decentralized and disaggregated organizations, and instant news.

Leadership miscues and missteps erode faith in an organization. No faith? Dispirited action. Leadership behavior and decisions do matter, and in today’s world, are increasingly apparent. This begs the need for proactive empathy and transparency, and raises the bar for the need for communication and personal emotional intelligence on the part of leaders.

If you are awake, aware and attuned to your own values first, and then to what is happening with all the groups around you and not just listening to one or two constituencies, you will be able to make decisions you can passionately and authentically explain.

We are hearing more and more often that the rank and file workers, or in this case passionate volunteer, are suspicious of the motives of executive leaders, and feel disengaged at work. Komen is playing with its essential life-fire—its volunteer army—it can’t afford to lose their commitment and loyalty. The fact that they are huge, socially oriented mission-driven organization/movement makes the potential risk here even more stark, but the message is true for all organizations.

People want to believe in the goodness of their leaders, in the alignment of a leader’s values and the work of the organization, and they want their feelings to count—or they will walk away.

From Apolitical to Now Political

To act surprised that people might construe these recent announcements as having a political element, is to insult the very women who are the heart and soul of the organization. Komen leadership’s stated surprise at the response is particularly dissonant in this situation because Komen is an organization built on emotion, relationship, and caring. Nancy G. Brinker, the founder and CEO of the foundation, assures us in her straight talk video that this decision was not in response to political pressure. She herself then appears to have hurt feelings that anyone could question Komen. This makes me wonder if she is out of touch.

Her appeal to logic—that these decisions were not political, but rather a result of a standard leadership review of policy—misses the emotional point entirely and feels disingenuous. Any decision that cuts off access to care for poor women will be experienced as heartless by a volunteer army built on the basis of compassion. Anticipating and understanding the emotional impact of a decision on your followers is essential.

So What’s Next?

First, if I were coaching Nancy G. Brinker, I would suggest she consider a forthright explanation of what happened with this decision. Tell the whole story about how and why she chose to let her team make this policy change. Empathize with the Krusaders—find out why they got upset. Don’t blame them for a lingering emotional reaction. Admit that a mistake was made. Assure them that you believe that politics and breast cancer should NEVER mix, and that you will be more careful of this line in the future.

Second, take your team on a retreat and have an open debate about this issue. Work hard to make sure everyone tells you everything they think. Do an after-action review like the military does and figure out what mistakes were made along the way. Then have your team fan out and hold dialogue sessions with the affiliates. Have them listen and learn. Avoid defensiveness. Only then will the organization truly move on. Then, and only then, you may recapture the hearts and minds of your Krusaders. In the meantime, my network and I will send our money to the other local breast cancer organizations. I will be watching to see what you do.

See more blogs by Teleos founder, Fran Johnston.

News Flash: Good Guy Wins!

Beyond the Pink: Wake Up Calls and What I Learned from Cancer