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Leadership Conference Focuses on Principled Dissent

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller speaking during leadership conference.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller, a retired four-star general who served as the 37th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, appeared as the H.B. Johnson, Class of 1926 Distinguished Lecture Series speaker in Cameron Hall.—VMI photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

The 13th Annual VMI Leadership and Ethics Conference, “Principled Dissent: Navigating Moral Challenges,” was held Monday, Oct. 31, and Tuesday, Nov. 1, in Marshall Hall. The conference focused on both the personal aspects of developing and exercising moral courage and the organizational environment set by leaders to encourage respectful, honest, and candid conversation.

More than 160 participants, including students from many colleges, universities, and military academies from across the nation, as well as many VMI cadets, gathered to hear inspirational speakers, participate in collaborative activities, and network. Attendees came from schools including Virginia Tech, Christopher Newport University, Washington College, The Citadel, the Coast Guard Academy, Texas A&M University, Norwich University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and East Tennessee State University.

Central to the conference’s programming were small group discussions and speakers focusing on critical thinking, problem-solving, making ethical decisions, and becoming an effective leader with conviction.

Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, welcomed attendees Oct. 31 and challenged them to learn how to lift their voices to the world’s challenges while exploring the dimensions of effective leadership, often placing courage over comfort. “There is a fine line between constructive and destructive dissent. Over the next two days, you will learn new skills on how to speak up and be critical when the situation is appropriate. You will learn about yourselves and how you, as leaders, can effectively influence a team and encourage a culture of honesty and integrity,” Wins said.

Ira Chaleff, the first guest speaker, is an executive coach in the greater Washington, D.C., area and author of the book, “The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders,” which is used widely in leadership studies and development programs. His later book, “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong” was named the best new leadership book of 2015 by the University of San Diego School of Leadership and Education Sciences.

Having recently recovered from an illness, Chaleff spoke remotely to his audience, taking as his topic “A Critical Leadership and Followership Skill.” He defined leadership as “a relationship of mutual influence between leaders and followers” and noted that in every organized activity, there is a leader and at least one follower. Sometimes one leads, and sometimes one follows. He stated that followers are equally as important as leaders when all share the same values and are in service to a common purpose. To follow courageously, one should stand up to and for the leaders; sometimes, a leader should be challenged or questioned.

Chaleff discussed the idea of “intelligent disobedience,” which is resistance to an order if the leader lacks legitimate authority or the order will produce harm. He gave an example of a guide dog for the blind being taught to disobey commands when they pose a danger. The dog’s visually impaired master has legitimate authority but may give the command to lead him across the street. At that point, the dog intelligently disobeys. Why? Because what the master doesn’t realize is that a quiet car is quickly approaching, and if the dog obeys, he will put himself and his master in grave danger. He noted that this type of disobedience differs from civil disobedience, where the system is perceived to be unjust, with violations of laws and rules committed, usually to bring public harm.

Erika Cheung speaking during Leadership Conference.

Erika Cheung, who is known for being a key whistleblower reporting the medical-diagnostic company Theranos to health regulators, addressed conference participants in Gillis Theater.—VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

Chaleff discussed authority structures, which are externally assigned roles, for example, a job description or responsibility flow chart which clarifies who can set policy or issue orders for others. Such structures promote orderly group activity and efficiency. Sources of internalized rules are often established at a young age and can come from family, schools, youth programs, religion, culture, indoctrination, and organizational norms. Varying internalized rules can inhibit the flow of information and ideas. The speaker noted there are varying degrees of obedience. Some people obey authority, even to the detriment of themselves and others, while others limit their obedience when it conflicts with that of a higher authority: For example, what they were taught by their parents, or what their religion or conscience forbids.

Chaleff advised using an assertive voice when dissenting. An assertive voice is assured, confident, firm, and forthright. A mitigating voice is diplomatic, hedging, and weak. A mitigating voice may be appropriate in some circumstances, but the closer to risk or danger a situation comes, speakers must change their voices to convey assertion. Chaleff gave a real-life example of a co-pilot who was concerned with the pilot’s landing approach but only used a mitigating voice and deferred to the pilot’s experience and authority. Even to the point immediately before the airplane crashed, the co-pilot continued to use a weak voice, to the demise of everyone on board.

In closing, Chaleff recommended that when one is contemplating intelligent disobedience, to first observe the risk, pause the action, resist obeying or conforming, use an effective voice, counter-pull if needed, find better alternatives, then return to lead as appropriate, since taking away leadership from the authority is not the goal, but rather advising and correcting toward the common purpose.

The next speaker was Erika Cheung, who began her career as a medical researcher in the biotechnology industry and later became a key whistleblower reporting the medical-diagnostic company Theranos to health regulators.

Theranos, which was started in 2003, was thought to be the latest new company in Silicon Valley whose value would skyrocket. The company claimed to simplify blood testing with one simple finger stick rather than the traditional blood draw of multiple test tubes from the vein of an arm. The company claimed to have a machine that could provide test results within an hour, and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was thought to be the Steve Jobs of the healthcare industry. Holmes was successful in raising $700 million to start the company and was able to put together a high-profile board of directors, including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis.

When she was hired at Theranos, Cheung was 22 years old, fresh out of college. She was drawn to Theranos because of its claim to make healthcare more affordable, especially to people without health insurance. But Cheung immediately noticed problems. Having only worked for about a month, Cheung described an incident that she called the “Thanksgiving Nightmare,” in which she tried to run a quality control test on the machine but kept getting conflicting results. When she reported the problem, she was told she was too inexperienced to run the test properly.

She soon discovered that the blood tests were not being run in the new machine but in the traditional FDA-approved machines secreted in the building’s basement. When FDA regulators sent trial blood samples to test the integrity of the new Theranos machine, the samples were tested both in the new machine and the traditional machines, but the test results from the traditional machines were sent back to the FDA regulators.

Cheung observed this fabrication and chose to resign rather than join in the lie. Later, she wrote a letter to regulators, which started the investigation. Criminal charges were filed against Holmes and Sunny Balwani, who served as chief operating officer for the company. They were both found guilty, and sentencing is pending.

Cheung is now executive director of Ethics in Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit organization that aims to embed ethical questioning, culture, and systems in start-up ecosystems worldwide.

“Your example is the most powerful tool you have to inspire those around you. Your character has been developed by your parents, teachers, and mentors. Don’t ruin your character by making bad choices. Don’t compromise, and protect what you’ve earned.”

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller

The first day ended with Peter Bonilla, dinner speaker and vice president of programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit civil liberties group focused on protecting free speech rights on college campuses. He spoke about the need for students to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints. “It is important for them to hear and understand points of view with which they may disagree in order to prepare them to operate effectively in new environments in which they need to find a common purpose with people from diverse backgrounds. Colleges need to find new ways to allow people to dissent without shutting down controversial speakers,” he said.

Prior to joining FIRE, Peter was literary manager of Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company, one of the country’s top theaters for the development and production of politically and socially themed plays. He is a past recipient of a fellowship in playwriting from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and his first play was developed at Philadelphia’s PlayPenn New Play Development Conference. It premiered to critical acclaim in Arizona in September 2011.

On the conference’s second day, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller, a four-star general who served as the 37th commandant of the Marine Corps, appeared as the H.B. Johnson Class of 1926 Distinguished Lecture Series speaker in Cameron Hall with the entire Corps of Cadets, along with the conference participants, in attendance.

Neller told his listeners there is no secret to being an effective leader. “It is hard, but there is a path, and you already know what it is. You will grow and change,” he said. He asked the audience to think of a person who had inspired them at some point in their life and to think of their traits, such as competence, respect, unselfishness, compassion, and patience, and to take on those same traits.

The general reminded his audience that effort matters and told a story of a Marine recruit he trained early in his career. This recruit was overweight and had lost 100 pounds in 120 days of training but failed to perform even one pull-up. The recruit was in danger of being sent home, but he had a positive attitude and put forth such a strong effort that the entire platoon was cheering him as he completed his first pull-up. The recruit refused to quit until he achieved his goal. Neller noted that during his career, he was exposed to smart and talented people who didn’t work hard, but he much preferred hard workers who weren’t as talented.

He discussed the sacrifice, discipline, and hard work those in attendance had put forth in achieving where they are in their respective institutions of higher learning. “Your example is the most powerful tool you have to inspire those around you. Your character has been developed by your parents, teachers, and mentors. Don’t ruin your character by making bad choices. Don’t compromise, and protect what you’ve earned,” he warned.

Neller advised his audience to get “buy-in” by their personal example, how they speak and conduct themselves. To illustrate, he told a story of a time he and his company were at the end of a strenuous multiday training exercise, and everyone was tired and hungry. He promised if the chow truck arrived, he would have the enlisted soldiers eat first, then the officers and Neller himself would eat last, and if there was no food left for him, so be it. The chow truck arrived, and an officer climbed up to start unloading it. The officer saw cake in the truck, and when he thought no one was watching, he ate a piece. An enlisted man observed him eat it and reported the violation to Neller, who, in turn, disciplined the officer. “Don’t eat the cake” is a metaphor Neller uses for setting a personal example.

Neller closed by reminding his audience if they want to hear what others have to say when they are in a leadership position, ask them and be sincere. “Don’t ask for an opinion if you don’t want to hear it,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Rachael Denhollander appeared as the Caroline Dawn Wortham ’12 Leadership Speaker. Wortham passed away in 2015 at the age of 26 after being hit by a car while riding her bicycle in Hanover County, Virginia. Her father, Dr. Edwin Wortham V, has provided an endowment to fund the series in her memory and was in attendance to hear Denhollander speak.

Denhollander became known internationally in 2016 as the first woman to pursue criminal charges and speak publicly against Larry Nassar, M.D., former USA Gymnastics team doctor and one of the most prolific sexual abusers in recorded history. Denhollander first encountered Nassar when she was a 15-year-old gymnast and went to him for back and wrist pain. At the time, he was a preeminent sports medicine physician, and she felt fortunate to be able to consult him.

Rachael Denhollander speaking during leadership conference.

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to pursue criminal charges against Larry Nassar, M.D., USA Gymnastics team doctor, appeared as the Caroline Dawn Wortham ’12 Leadership Speaker in Gillis Theater.—VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

But immediately, she thought that things weren’t quite right. As a young girl, she was confused. Eventually, though, he did something she clearly recognized as assault. She and her parents, who were supportive of her, faced a battle against a community that revered and respected the physician and saw the young gymnast as a troublemaker trying to get attention or money.

For nearly 16 years, Denhollander watched and waited and collected medical files. Eventually, she read an article in the Indianapolis Star about rampant coach abuse in gymnastics. She and her parents talked with the newspaper, and when their story was printed, it immediately made international headlines. The family knew they would face adverse consequences but decided to do what was right.

“I knew speaking out would not necessarily mean a positive outcome, but I had to be faithful to my values. The definition of success is being faithful to what you are given. Ideas have consequences, but bad ideas have victims, and I didn’t want anyone to pay the price of my decision to remain silent,” said Denhollander.

As a result of her activism, over 300 women—including numerous Olympic medalists—came forward as survivors of Nassar’s abuse, eventually leading to his life imprisonment. Her courageous tenacity and ongoing advocacy helped trigger a complete upheaval at both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, where former executives and high-ranking officials face numerous criminal charges for their complicity in covering up Nassar’s abuse and lying about what they knew.

Denhollander reminded the audience not to argue just to win and that we become who we are one small choice at a time. She credits those who stood beside her along her journey, explaining Nassar’s prison sentence as “a collective effort of quiet decisions.”

Each speaker recognized the efforts of the Center for Leadership & Ethics staff for bringing a highly engaging event together with such unique perspectives.

Col. Dave Gray, Ph.D., VMI Center for Leadership & Ethics director, was pleased and proud of this year’s conference and his team’s efforts, saying, “Each speaker and each interactive activity we designed into this conference brought depth and a variety of perspectives on how to be a courageous follower who uses dissent when necessary and also how leaders can set an environment that invites candor. The feedback we received from the conference participants about both the design and execution of the conference has been very positive. We hope that they will continue to discuss and reflect on this theme for quite some time to come.”

Cadet Fatoumata Diallo ’23, one of the conference’s cadet facilitators, enjoyed the guest speakers and networking with her peers and alumni. “It was a rich and engaging conference that taught attendees how to engage in morally challenging discussions and to practice various dissent techniques using an assertive voice,” she said.

Cadet Harrison Williams ’25 thought the conference was a great event. “It’s not every day that you can talk to the former commandant of the Marine Corps. I learned valuable advice from him that will serve me and others well. I thought this was a great experience overall, and I plan on attending this conference every year,” he said.

Next year’s Leadership Conference will be held Oct. 30–31, 2023, with an announcement of the theme and title coming in the spring. To stay informed, visit the conference website and join the mailing list here.

  • Marianne Hause VMI Communications & Marketing