Confronting unethical leadership

Partnership program alumni explore causes of the Holocaust to find lessons in leadership

When visitors walk through the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C., they see hundreds of pictures in the exhibits and thousands of names on the walls—but those represent only a fraction of the people who perished in the Holocaust. Because of the horror and the magnitude of the atrocities, the realities can be difficult to reckon with.

“It’s mind-boggling to think about how something like this can happen,” said one participant of the recent museum tour and discussion for Partnership leadership program alumni.

That was precisely what they were there to learn—how did something so terrible come to pass?

Participants had an opportunity to explore the causes during their recent museum tour and follow-up debriefing session. Since 2010, the benchmarking visit to the museum has been a regular feature of the Excellence in Government Fellows program, but this was the first time it was offered specifically for Partnership alumni. The session gave graduates an opportunity to explore lessons from the Holocaust and connect what they learned touring the museum to their leadership development during their training programs. They also the chance to connect with other government leaders to discuss some of the challenges they face in their roles.

“The Holocaust was still fundamentally an act of government.”
“If you see someone being unethical in government, you need to stand up to it”

Hannah Meyer, program coordinator for the division of the senior historian, led the discussion that followed the museum tour. She began by making sure participants understood the historical events that led up to the genocide. “The Holocaust didn’t begin with mass killings,” she said, adding that the Holocaust arose from anti-Semitic ideology, but it was still fundamentally an act of government.

Perhaps not all German government leaders were equally complicit in orchestrating the genocide, she said. But by failing to oppose what was happening, they played a part in allowing it to continue—as did the government leaders of other countries such as the United States, when they forbade Jewish refugees from coming across their borders.

The participants saw parallels between some of the dynamics and dilemmas that confronted German government leaders during the Holocaust and their own roles in government. “If you see someone being unethical in government, you need to stand up to it,” one participant said.

Doing what is right might not always be so easy, Meyer cautioned. By exploring concepts like conformity and rationalization, participants saw how the key issues that contributed to Nazi officials’ acceptance of the government policies that led to the Holocaust were similar to problems they confronted on a daily basis in their offices.

German government norms slowly shifted over time, Meyer explained. “Pressure was put on government bureaucracy to conform to Nazi ideology.”

The museum visit reminded one participant of her benchmarking trip to Jamestown, Virginia, during the EIG program. She learned there that “slavery boiled down to economic rationalization,” she said. Of course, racist ideology played a part in making slavery widely accepted. But even for those who might have had misgivings about the institution of slavery, they rationalized their acceptance of it based on economic necessities. She found that this trip reinforced the important leadership lessons she learned in EIG, she said.

While the Holocaust might seem like a singularly terrible historical event with limited relevance for modern society, participants understood how the fundamental causes related to issues they dealt with as government leaders. One participant said the session helped her recognize her own biases. She said she was determined to return to work more diligent about inviting others to challenge her thinking and express different perspectives.