It was a scene pulled from a nightmare. A Penn State graduate assistant allegedly witnessed a young boy, about 10 years old, being sexually brutalized in the locker room showers by the football team’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The crisis of failed leadership that followed has ended Joe Paterno’s coaching career, tarnished the reputation of a legendary program, and shaken Penn State’s leadership team all the way to the president’s office. Within the tale are reputational lessons to be learned by every business executive who thinks “that couldn’t happen on my watch.”
Experts warn of five common attitudes that have the power to drag your reputation, and that of your organization, straight into the fiery pit.
1. The law is our defense.
As students rioted in support of the ousted coach, one protestor pouted to a TV reporter, “He didn’t break any laws.” Mark that statement as factually correct but missing the point. In most cases, stakeholders will hold your organization to a much higher standard than legal compliance, particularly if your brand purports to stand for positive social values.
Paul Danos, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, calls to task those in business and other institutions who fail mightily in their societal responsibilities while staying well clear of the town’s sheriff.
Speaking of bank regulators and CEOs who allowed illogical risks to flourish in our banking and investment institutions, Danos says, “The parties had the power to avert disaster, but they likely lacked the knowledge their positions required, or even a thorough appreciation of the duties they had assumed. Most important, they seemed to lack the courage to speak up when necessary.”
Leaders must fully understand their duties and responsibilities, and appreciate the courage it takes to make a decision that might hurt a colleague or damage an organization’s reputation.
2. We can keep it quiet.
Brand reputation may mean millions of dollars in revenue, so it is understandable that one of the basic instincts when facing an organizational failure is to delete, shred, bury and shush.
Terry Hemeyer teaches crisis communications at the University of Texas College of Communication, and has built his career on shepherding clients through publicly embarrassing episodes. “Secrecy is never completely possible, particularly in today’s world,” he warns. “Face up to the controversy, deal with it, and be transparent about your actions.”
If Penn State had handled the original abuse case in those terms there would have been some negative publicity, but the focus would have been on Sandusky while the reputation of the program would have endured.
“Now they are dealing with a crisis in confidence in the entire university, and it never had to reach that stage,” he says. “Secrets fester.”
3. This will be simple to fix.
As Penn State leadership began to consider how to deal with the first incident in the showers, did anyone wonder what a 10-year-old abused boy would do when he became a man in his 20s? Who thought secrecy and time would ameliorate the wrong? Who thought this was only about football?
In the heat of a potential crisis, managers may oversimplify the issue without thinking through the complexity of long-term causes and effects, including the consequences on individuals or communities.
"Leaders must take the long view when faced with a crisis, and that means considering all the factors and making unpopular choices,” says author and retired Xerox executive Ernest Auerbach. “The great leader thinks of his responsibilities not only to the institution but for the broader good of all affected.”
Auerbach points to Winston Churchill, who warned England in the 1930s of the threat of Hitler’s Germany. “His views were trashed by his own colleagues. He was alone and unpopular, but of course he was right. That’s great leadership."
4. Hey, we’re the good guys!
Watergate conspirator Bud Krogh looks back 30 years on the crimes that dismantled the Nixon White House, landing him in prison, and recalls having an overpowering sense that “we were in the right.”
“Most of those who went to work for Richard Nixon went with the intention to do a good thing,” he said. “I’ll bet not one of them thought, ‘Now is my chance to commit a felony.’”
McCombs business ethics professor Robert Prentice points to recent studies suggesting most people innately consider themselves more skilled, ethical, and generous than their colleagues. So believing, we may feel entitled to cut corners or sweep a secret under the rug.
According to Prentice, this degree of overconfidence is particularly troublesome for those at the top. He asserts that "Leaders, having had much success, have even more confidence in themselves and their character” than the average person.
“Under certain circumstances, we give ourselves license to play a little faster and looser than we normally would,” Prentice says. “And we don’t realize how much the last decision we made can affect the next decisions we make.”
5. Loyalty will be rewarded.
As Arthur Andersen faced obstruction of justice charges related to their involvement in the Enron debacle, loyal employees who had absolutely nothing to do with any malfeasance by the firm were pulling all-nighters at the shredders, dutifully destroying evidence.
Janet Dukerich, who lectures on ethics at McCombs, ponders why even low-level employees far from the decision loop often buy into a philosophy that “the good of the firm” trumps other moral or ethical concerns.
“Most of the people working at Arthur Andersen were horrified by what had been done by a few,” she says. “But you can want to protect your organization’s reputation so much that your own actions become unethical. It seems the conditions were ripe for this to occur at Penn State.”
Ignore this advice if you wish, but remember that Joe Paterno likely never thought it could happen on his watch either. By all accounts he was the type of leader who emphasized a strong moral code, implemented it, and institutionalized it.
Linda Tevino, professor of organizational behavior and ethics at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State, cites Paterno as a model of ethics in Managing Business Ethics, praising his program’s high expectations for appropriate behavior.
She goes on to write, “Coaches and business leaders are subject to immense pressure to win, and it can be tempting to put intense pressure on their people to bend or even break the rules. Ethical leaders maintain their principles through good times and bad.”
So far, it’s been a devil of a week for Joe Paterno and Penn State.