It is very disturbing to read the reports of the FBI investigation of Sandusky child sex abuse.  Equally disturbing is the handling of the situation by Penn State University.  Similar to my last post about the culture in Japan and the role that may have played in the Fukushima disaster, the situation at PSU was one of a culture that played a significant role in a failure, and a system which allowed inappropriate behavior to go uncorrected.  As a dyed in the wool Penn State fan, this has been a really tough one for me to swallow and a great disappointment.

We start making exceptions to enable one part of the organization to continue to be successful.  That is where it starts…and ultimately ends.

Here are some quotes from Edward Queen of CNN about the findings in the Sandusky case.

“Not only did the university’s administration not inform the board about the suspicions of and allegations against Sandusky, the board failed in its responsibility in establishing a system to seek such information. Most shocking, however, given its legal obligations, was Penn State’s complete dereliction in its responsibilities under express laws, including those mandating reporting and protecting those who bring violations to light.

Regardless of the structural, administrative and disciplinary failures at Penn State, the central moral failing was that the school cared more about its reputation, its football team, and even Sandusky than about his victims. The school grossly mis-ordered values and failed to meet its duties.

Penn State’s failings should be a warning to every organization and to all of us. We protect our reputations by doing the right thing, not by hiding our failings. Indeed, even amid discovery of error and wrongdoing, reputations are enhanced by acknowledging, dealing with them immediately and directly, and working to minimize their recurrence.”

In the related case of Vicky Triponey, former head of student affairs at Penn State who called out university leadership years ago on the balance of power and the associated problems this was causing and could cause, we see what tends to happen in organizations when the balance of power becomes unhealthy.

In this case, for me, the bottom line is that PSU had developed a culture in which football and everything related to it reigned supreme.  This is what can happen in organizations.  There is an element of the organization which becomes so successful, so powerful or so important that all else becomes subservient to it.  We lose balance and perspective about the relative importance of other issues.  We start making exceptions to enable that one part to continue to be successful.  That is where it starts…and ultimately ends.  Watch out for it!

As leaders, we are responsible for the behaviors of all our employees…no questions asked.  The buck absolutely stops here.

  • Manage your own behaviors and responsibilities ruthlessly.  Give yourself no slack and be tireless in your efforts to remain beyond reproach.  Require the same of everyone around you.  By the way, this will not only keep you off the front pages of the tabloids, it will earn you the respect and trust of your employees…a fundamental element in motivation.
    • Be aware of the power balance in your organization…when one part of the business becomes too powerful, it can and often will create aberrant behaviors.
      • Face mistakes head on and correct them immediately.  My experience has been that the truth always comes out, and that handling issues correctly is not only the right thing to do, it serves your best interest in protecting that which is so important to you and your organization.
        • Put systems in place which routinely and consistently make you aware of important information.  As in one of my recent posts on the complexities of leadership and the massive amounts of information with which you must deal, you need to build the appropriate mechanisms to enable information to make its way to you without being filtered or modified in any way.  LINK…

In this case, the greatest tragedy is how the lives of these young boys will be effected by this behavior.  Beyond that, not only will the football program be significantly damaged, so will the careers of many of the leaders of the university.  The storied history of the football program will be permanently tarnished.  The lives of many people will be destroyed…forever.