The unfolding of events at Penn State over the past year will likely become a leadership case study in “what not to do.” The facts, as known today, include knowledge that a visible member of the Penn State “family” has been convicted on multiple counts of serial child abuse; that many of the leadership team at the University appear to have had adequate knowledge about Sandusky’s activities and failed to take action to stop or prevent that conduct; that Penn State must now pay a $60 million fine and suffer additional penalties that will essentially “gut” its football program; finally, that Penn State’s reputation has been irreparably damaged. While time, detail and perspective will be make the circumstances surrounding Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, and the University’s leadership more instructive, there are many lessons to be learned from what has already be revealed. But central to those lessons are value questions that must be answered by all, especially those who would lead.
My father often told me “Remember who you are” as a teenager heading out for an evening with friends. At the heart of that admonition was a call to remain true to the values he held inviolate and that he and my mother hoped to instill in me. It was to make me responsible for upholding, not so much the family name, but principles that most would agree are noble and essential to civil society: honesty, fairness, self control, discipline, compassion, and justice. One wonders what values Penn State’s inner circle of leadership, those who knew of Sandusky’s activities, held inviolate. It would be tempting to view the mission statement and values as the University surely has published. Yet to do so would leave us all the more dismayed, it would seem. Leaders must decide what they will stand for, and therefore, what they will stand against. They must answer the question “What values are we committed to as an organization, family, or individual?” Theologian Francis Schaeffer once wrote that our own “personal peace and prosperity” could threaten our willingness to stand for things we say are important. We must let them.Leaders, genuine leaders, not just those holding positions of authority, must continuously examine themselves and their organizations to insure they hold true to their values. Mere words, no matter how eloquent, will not suffice.
Leaders, regardless of the venue, must ask, “Doe our commitment to our values govern or limit our appreciation for financial or other measures of success such as “winning?” In short, they must be willing to incur the tangible risks of loss of income or “wins” in favor of protecting the intangible, yet priceless, value of their reputation and the reputation of their family, company, or nation. Penn State’s reputation will not soon recover. Those who once proudly claimed it as their Alma Mater will now wince when asked about their education. Those far removed from culpability will pay the price for men and women who, whether through willful ignorance, disbelief, or wanton disregard for the truth, and justice, chose (and choose they did) not to act on they information they appear to have held. Perhaps, they were blinded by the public persona and virtue of a beloved Coach.
Genuine leaders will not be so blinded, whether by a Coach, DEO, Pastor, Teacher or other. They will anticipate the impact of their actions (and choose to risk short-term loss of reputation, profitability, or winning in favor of a long walk in the same direction toward what is “right.” Genuine leaders ask, “What will we do when the challenge to our values is presented?” They do not ask “if.” They are keenly aware that such challenges will arise. Such men and women recognize each of us is capable of the fear, self-deceit, and disbelief that may have contributed to the outcome at Penn State. In such knowledge, they build processes and structures of accountability that recognize what fragile, broken, and sometimes evil men and women can do if unchecked. They stare into the abyss of their souls and at the human experience and realize bad things happen. And we must prepare. They have determined their values and set their course accordingly. These are the men and women easily followed into battle and throughout a crisis. In them we sense our “higher self.”
Normally, these missives close with encouragement to “keep the faith.” In the light of the horrors visited on young children and the apparent complicity of so many, such an admonition might seem trite. Such events challenge our faith in God and Mankind. It is a fair challenge. Yet we must not remain there. To do so is to succumb to a hopelessness from which we cannot recover. It is to agree that nothing can be done so nothing should be done. Now, more than ever, we must….. Keep the faith.
Personal Note: As I began this, I did to realize I had so much to say about it. I would not overlook the facts of the Penn State situation include the unspeakable pain that must have been known by the children who were abused or their families. I pray they find peace.