Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Judgment, Leadership, Substance and Process ... The Larger Penn State Lesson

Leadership is different than popularity. When leading, doing the right thing is paramount, and that's not likely to be the popular route. Common sense is necessary and unusually high intelligence isn't.

Most of us know what to do if we're trying to do the right thing in any given situation. Don't steal, report a crime, help our fellow man, tell the truth and so on.

Lead, follow or get out of the way, in other words.

We don't need a detailed rule book or set of regulations to tell us what to do or how to do it. We just need to use our heads and hearts and not play silly or dangerous games. Face the facts, assess the situation and take appropriate action. That's all.

General rules are required but always subordinate to using good judgment. When immoral rules and common sense based good judgment collide, common sense must always prevail.

Using discretion and common sense when reviewing rules versus adopting a rigid reliance on fixed process is of fundamental importance. We know what to do. Sometimes we just have to find the courage to do it.

When we're in  a position of leadership, a fiduciary mindset and attitude about accepting responsibility for taking appropriate action in any given situation is either present or absent. Unfortunately, as individual human beings, all too often we don't step forward and take responsibility for our actions, or inactions, whether it's our duty to do so or not.

Acts of omission are often more costly than acts of commission. If we become aware of something that's seriously wrong, we have a clear duty to do something about it. It's simply not enough to stay out of it or act as if it's none of our business. We're all in this life together. The Golden Rule always applies.

To repeat, we must first focus on doing the right thing. Only thereafter should we be concerned with doing that right thing right.

In other words, if we're not doing what we should be doing, it doesn't matter how well we're doing that wrong thing. In fact, if we're doing the wrong thing, we're probably doing it poorly.

That applies to leadership and common sense based judgment when we're faced with situations which can best be described as extraordinary. Like the recent Penn State case and what went on there, as well as what didn't go on, these past several decades.

Leaders always do what's right or at least try to do so. Not what's strictly legal or rule based or procedurally or politically correct, or even what's popular at the time, but what's right. Finally, they do it NOW and not later.

So now let's look at the Penn State tragedy in that light. I believe it offers valuable lessons for our broader society, including self governance.

NCAA Fumbles Penn State Case says this:

"The first clue to the cluelessness of the National Collegiate Athletic Association came during its press conference Monday morning in Indianapolis.

The chairman of the organization's executive committee, Ed Ray, explained the NCAA's sanctions on Penn State by invoking "the children." Minutes later NCAA President Mark Emmert took it to the next level of political correctness by declaring that the aim was a "change of culture." Indeed, Mr. Emmert invoked the word "culture" six times as he explained punishments that will largely be inflicted on the innocent for the failures of the guilty.

That's what we do these days. When someone does something truly evil—whether it be a gunman firing on innocents in a Colorado theater, or an assistant college football coach molesting young boys—we indict the larger culture. We see this in the wake of Colorado, where last week's shooting spree has fed calls to take away guns from the law-abiding. We see it too in reaction to the terrible happenings at Penn State, where Joe Paterno's name seems to arouse more fury than that of the man who actually molested the boys, Jerry Sandusky.

Maybe that's because we expected more from Paterno, whose slogan was "success with honor." Maybe it's because Sandusky was allowed in the Penn State facilities even after people saw him taking showers with naked young boys. In some senses, the urge to punish, and punish big, reflects a human desire to see justice done and an institution held accountable.

Hence the NCAA's assault on the Penn State culture. Under the just-announced sanctions, Penn State's football team will be banned from postseason play for four years, its football scholarships will be limited, and it will pay a year's worth of football revenue in fines, about $60 million. Even that wasn't good enough: The NCAA has also ordered all the Nittany Lion wins from 1998 to 2011 "vacated."

Now it's easy to say that the most powerful men at Penn State effectively provided Sandusky cover for his crimes, and in fact that is part of what former FBI Director Louis Freeh concludes in the investigation he carried out for Penn State's trustees. It's easy to believe, too, that these men were unduly motivated, as the report implies, by a desire not to incur the bad publicity that might harm a football brand bringing in millions each year.

The harder question to answer is as follows: Is the NCAA's emphasis on Penn State's "culture" part of the cure or part of the disease? Even if fixing the culture were the answer, is an association with as little credibility as the NCAA really the vehicle to deliver it?

How much better off we would be if we could address the real problem at State College—to wit, senior college officials, including Paterno, reluctant to take real responsibility for those under them. In this, surely, the culture at Penn State is far from unique. At most of our modern campuses, we've replaced leadership with codes, judgment with zero tolerance, and standards of right and wrong with Who Am I To Judge—and then we are shocked, shocked when scandal erupts.

At Hillsdale College, where this reporter has taught, President Larry Arnn says the increasing resort to complex codes deprives leaders of the discretion they need to make wise and fair decisions. "You can't write prudence and judgment into a code," says Mr. Arnn. "When a code tries to cover every possibility, it ends up shifting power from the college president and trustees to the compliance officers."

The argument for focusing on the larger culture over individual responsibility is that it will create a climate where a Sandusky could never again operate. Perhaps.

It's equally plausible, however, that the result will be new bouts of sensitivity training, new guidelines and regulations, and new compliance requirements that will allow leaders to insulate themselves from legal and financial liability by checking off boxes instead of resolving problems.

What an impoverished view of responsibility that would be. Then again, how in keeping it is with the multiplication of speech codes, sexual harassment codes, Title IX women's athletics codes and so forth that now substitute for leadership on so many campuses. Is this really what the most educated and enlightened members of our society have to offer our young people today?

In truth, the scandal at Penn State is only incidentally about football. Mostly it is about the collapse of authority. There was a day when our colleges held themselves to higher standards than the society around them. Today they look to police, the courts, and outside institutions such as the NCAA to do a job they are clearly unwilling or unable to do.

So the statue of Joe Paterno comes down. Amid the cheers, it might be worth giving more thought to what's going to replace it."

My Take

Leadership is about doing the right thing and being seen as doing just that--- a role model for common sense judgment, if you will.

The secret is in the doing and the details.

Joe Paterno didn't lead.

Neither did the Penn State President.

Neither did various assistant coaches.

And undoubtedly neither did countless others who knew or strongly suspected what was happening.

They didn't even try to do the right thing.

Nobody blew the whistle.

And Paterno and lots of other "leaders" at Penn State certainly had one to blow.

Thanks. Bob.

No comments:

Post a Comment