The Growth-Impact Model for Assessment & Planning
October 28, 2023
The Growth-Impact Model for Assessment & Planning
October 28, 2023

How to Shut Down a Bully – A Lesson from American History

When I conduct leadership workshops, I’ll break people up into small groups and ask them to describe their organization’s culture in exactly 6 words. This is often a fascinating window in the how they perceive their workplace.

I’m also fascinated by how often a six word phrase has been linked to changes in the course of history. I probably don’t even need to tell you the names of the speakers behind these famous 6-word phrases:

“Nothing to fear but fear itself” began the gradual transition of despair into hope for ending the Great Depression.

“Because I’ve been to the mountaintop” reified MLK’s Dream.

“An iron curtain has come down” heralded the beginning of the Cold War.

“Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” was a pivotal point in ending the Cold War.

“I need ammunition not a ride” galvanized the people of Ukraine to fight against the brutal Russian invasion that no one had given them a chance of withstanding.

6 Words that Shut Down a Bully

In the early 1950s Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy destroyed the careers and ruined the reputations of dozens of American citizens by accusing them of being communist agents. McCarthy’s rendition of the Red Scare was bullying on a grand scale, played out on a national stage. His attacks on government and military officials, and on private citizens, propelled him from relative anonymity to national prominence. And for a while, huge popularity.

But McCarthy is remembered by history for the polarizing damage he inflicted upon our nation. In the conclusion of his 500+ page book A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, David Oshinsky wrote that McCarthy “had a devastating effect on government morale, and he made America look ridiculous—and frightening—in the eyes of much of the world.” 

In a final set of hearings McCarthy accused the US Army of being negligent in securing facilities against “commie” infiltration. As the Army’s attorney Joseph Welch was questioning a witness, McCarthy interrupted to accuse one of Welch’s junior attorneys of being a communist. Welch responded with the words for which the McCarthy era will always be remembered:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency? At long last have you no sense of decency?”

Have you no sense of decency?

Those 6 words sounded the death knell of McCarthyism. They were a wake-up call to a nation already tiring of McCarthy’s bullying and demonizing. As recounted in the official website of the US Senate: “Overnight, McCarthy’s immense national popularity evaporated.”

Whether the bully is a national figure like Senator Joe McCarthy or the local version insulting and intimidating coworkers in the break room, they will only be stopped when enough people have the courage to stand up and say: At long last have you no sense of decency?

Please watch this 5-minute excerpt from the American Experience program on McCarthy titled Power Feeds on Fear.

Have you taken the Pickle Challenge?