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Leadership Lessons from Penn State

When we first heard about the possible sexual abuse of children by a former Penn State coach, it seemed to be a distant sound that would only have local implications. Then we began to hear about the scope of the abuse and the key leaders who were hiding the truth, allowing further abuse to take place for years.
We were stunned. We were horrified. We were outraged. We still are.

Countless writers and speakers opined about the tragedy. I made .
Then came the Sandusky trial. In what seemed to be a blur, the jury was selected, the case was heard, and the defendant was convicted. We wept as we heard about the testimonies of those whose innocence was shattered and psyche forever maimed.  They were just children.

The Next Stage
Then the statue of Joe Paterno was removed on a quiet Sunday morning. The next day Penn State was informed that its football program was spared the death penalty while receiving penalties arguably worse than that temporary shutdown of the program.

In the months ahead, we will hear about the sentencing of Sandusky. We will hear about more investigations. We will hear about more leaders indicted. Indeed we will hear about this awful tragedy for years to come.
The adjectives are endless: tragic, devastating, heinous, evil, perverted, demonic, and many, many others.

What Can We Learn?
Can any good from these crimes: crimes of personal assault and crimes of cover-up? I cannot be objective in my analysis. Any objectivity goes out the window when I think of the children. Emotions supersede calm logic.

Nevertheless, I keep asking myself to focus, to learn what I can as a leader. I must force myself to learn something if I am ever to be the kind of leader to make certain this tragedy does not place where I serve. If nothing else, I must learn leadership lessons for the sake of these children and future children. In doing so, I noted seven leadership lessons from Penn State.

  1. Do what is right regardless of the cost to any one individual or the organization as a whole. Be willing to sacrifice our own jobs if necessary.
  2. Be wary of subtle signs of rationalization creep. The Sandusky cover-up was not a singular major event that happened without warning. Rationalization was pervasive. Football and Paterno were protected at all costs. The image of the program was the idol. Many bowed to the idol long before Sandusky was seen in a shower with a young boy.
  3. Remember that no organization or leader is too big to fail or to fall. Leaders are at their greatest points of vulnerability when they think they and their organizations are invulnerable.
  4. Be careful about giving too much attention to your greatest admirers or to your greatest critics. I have written frequently about how leaders should avoid letting a few loud critics control their leadership. But it may even be more dangerous to listen too closely to those who laud us regularly. We could begin to think we really are as great as they say we are. And when we think we are great, we begin to think we can do no wrong.
  5. Set the right tone for an organization. A good leader will encourage transparency and accountability. A good leader will encourage a culture that willingly reports wrong instead of a culture of fear. A good leader will listen carefully when those in the organization have concerns. A good leader will make certain the organization has systems in place that allow people to report wrongs even without the leader being involved.
  6. Know clearly how to handle situations where problems and abuses develop. Indeed all leaders in the organization should be able to respond quickly and decisively when any wrongdoing or abuse takes place. In my organization, leaders at all levels have to take an annual online review of how to respond to sexual abuse and harassment, discrimination, and a number of other issues. Sometimes there are mild complaints about the “waste of time.” I wish Penn State had wasted such time.
  7. Make certain clear accountability is present at all levels of leadership. I am the leader of our organization. But I am accountable to the board of trustees and, more specifically, to the trustee officers. They are usually supportive of my recommendations. On one recent occasion, they suggested I go a different path than my plan. They told me that I didn’t have to; they just suggested it. Though I had a different perspective than theirs, I heeded their suggestion. To do otherwise would have been a clear statement that I was working around my accountability structure.

Perhaps Something Good
More than one commentator has said the football-related penalties can never match the crimes of commission and omission. In that regard, the score can never be even.

Perhaps, though, something good can come out of this evil. Perhaps we can review why this happened in an institution as revered as Penn State and with a leader as beloved as Joe Paterno. If it happened with that organization and that leader, we would be foolish to think it couldn’t happen to us in our organizations.

Perhaps the good that can come forth from the Penn State/Sandusky crimes is to learn lessons so that it might not happen again.  I, for one, have learned those lessons.  May I never forget them.

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