Penn State Mess Showcases Serious Lack of Ethics, Courage and Judgment
Many leaders possess the raw skills and charisma to lead effectively. They craft a meaningful mission and vision for the organization, and effectively drive the execution of strategic plans. As the recent and still unfolding events at Penn State University illustrate, however, there is more to leadership than skills and efficiency.
Over the past decade or so, influential people associated with the Penn State football program have been aware of improprieties. Rather than take bold unpopular action, various Penn State leaders chose to ignore a serious situation. Did the people closest to the problem follow “procedures” when they were made aware of unacceptable behavior? Answer: It appears so. Did these leaders do the right thing? Answer: No way. They failed in three key areas.
First of all, there was a lack of ethics. Let’s be clear on this point: From an ethical standpoint it is the leader’s duty to follow through to make certain that poor behavior is dealt with properly and expeditiously. At Penn State, the head football coach was made aware of a horrible incident, and while he elevated the issue to his superior, he did not follow up to ensure a resolution to the problem. This is not leadership, this is passing the buck.
Secondly, there was lack of courage. There are times when leaders find themselves in uncomfortable situations. The dilemma that leaders sometime face is that on one hand they clearly have a moral obligation to act on an event, and on the other hand they feel pressure not to harm the reputation, aura, and power of a previously pristine organization. The person who first witnessed unacceptable behavior at Penn State faced this type of dilemma. It appears that he did not muster the courage to take a stand for what was right. Real leadership would have called for him to help an innocent victim, and to confront a well-respected (at the time) and influential member of a lauded football program.
Lastly, there was poor judgment. Leaders on many levels at Penn State had the opportunity to investigate and subsequently eliminate unacceptable behavior. Their failure to act accordingly showed miserable judgment, which subsequently allowed for additional innocent people to be victimized. It should be clear from the Penn State example that sound judgment is symbiotic with sound leadership.
Once improprieties were brought to the attention of the Board of Trustee of Penn State University, however, they acted quickly and reactively. An internal investigation was ordered, the president of the university was fired, and the football coach – a man with tenure of over 40 years and a previously spotless reputation – was let go without fanfare. While it is curious that broader firings have not occurred pertaining to the issue, it does appear that the Board of Trustees has a commitment to ethics and judgment, as well as the courage to take on difficult situations. With their unanimous decisions and decisive actions, the Board of Trustees sent a message that unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated at Penn State. It is a shame that other leaders at their institution did not possess the same qualities when they could have made a positive difference.
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