4 Leadership Lessons To Take Away From the Penn State Scandal

Second of two parts

Here are four (4) lessons to take away from the Penn State scandal and make part of “the book” your people read:

1. Build a culture of open communication.

No employee should ever be fearful of losing their job for doing the right thing. Case in point: at Penn State you had a custodian and an assistant coach who feared being the “messenger who got shot” for blowing the whistle. You cannot put a price tag on integrity, and those two individuals will have to live with the consequences of their inaction.

This also begs the question: Why would you want to work at a place that systematically compromises its integrity and allows crimes to be perpetrated.

2. Create a willingness to ask tough questions and genuinely listen to (and act on) the answers you receive.

The Penn State administration half-heartedly listened to information, dismissed it (conveniently denied might be a better expression), and chose not to act on it. Clearly that was the incorrect choice, and you cannot put a price tag on the ensuing damage to the individuals and families involved. At the end of the day, your integrity and values are more important than public image. There is discomfort inherent with any leadership role. Let us not forget that since the beginning of time, discomfort has served to help man maintain his sense of vigilance.

Johnson & Johnson is a shining example of how to correctly handle a crisis. I learned this first hand, interning at the organization’s headquarters as a graduate student in 1993. Their founder, Robert Wood Johnson, developed the company credo in 1943 and it has been their North Star ever since.

The first line of their credo is: “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, patients, mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be of the highest quality.”

The second paragraph begins as follows: “We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well. “ (You can email me at john@coachbru.com and I will share with you a PDF of Johnson & Johnson’s full credo.)

This is not just slogans or verbiage plastered on the wall of the lobby, their letterhead or website. These are core values which you will see in action every day at Johnson & Johnson. They are the manufacturers of Tylenol, and in 1982, someone outside the company tampered with bottles in Chicago, lacing them with cyanide.

Almost instantly, Johnson & Johnson made the decision to pull every bottle off every shelf in every location the product was sold. They didn’t put themselves or the bottom-line first; they put the consumer first by removing 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules, to the tune of over $100 million. They demonstrated, in word and deed, that they are an organization of integrity and committed to their core values. Furthermore, they cemented their commitment to excellence by returning a new and improved product to the shelf with a new triple sealed tamper resistant packaging. How can you be the Johnson & Johnson of your industry?

3. Make accountability a priority.

The tampering with Tylenol bottles was not done at the manufacturing plant nor was it done by Johnson & Johnson employees. Technically it wasn’t their problem, yet they chose to make it their accountability.

The independent report by former FBI director Louis Freeh and his law firm, shares in detail the facts, circumstances and leadership failings which occurred at Penn State University. There is a quote by Freeh on page 16 of the findings which speaks volumes about the troubling culture at the institution — “The investigation revealed a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.”

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This type of lack of accountability will forever be known to me as “The Paterno Effect.” I don’t think the phenomenon is limited just to institutions or teams. It can and frequently does impact organizations where crisis strikes and the decision not to act is rationalized by leadership as “protecting the brand” for fear of bad press. Case in point: Best Buy founder Richard Schulze hid the fact that his CEO was having an inappropriate relationship with another employee.

Leaders often find it difficult to fight what I call, “The Paterno Effect” or in other words challenging successful, popular and consequently powerful employees. Remember that the last word of that sentence is what they are — employees. They work for you, and like in the case of Penn State, no individual can be allowed to be bigger than the team or the organization.

If you allow this, you are setting yourself and your organization up for failure later. I see all too often in my consulting work that the top performers in many companies are granted way too much latitude and top sales people are enabled to get away with things other sales people cannot simply because of the numbers they produce. This is a silent assassin, resulting in deteriorating team chemistry.

4. Knowledge minus action equals zero ( K-A= 0).

What’s more important — knowing what to do or the commitment to get it done? Clearly, in the case of Penn State, it is not enough to know what to do. I’m sure Penn State’s administration had a plan in place and the personnel department had documented policy for all staff to follow. What did not take place was proper execution of the plan.

The bottom line in situations such as these is that leaders must commit to choose the harder right over the easier wrong. When you are in a situation where you stand to lose a lot by stating the complete truth that is exactly the time to do it. Imagine how Joe Paterno could have cemented his legacy as a leader of men and protector of children if he had chosen to execute the harder right over the easier wrong when he first learned of Sandusky’s issues.

When organizational goals and core values are aligned both leadership and teamwork are greatly facilitated. When crisis does arise, great leaders are able to respond swiftly and correctly due to the clarity of their core values and the organizational culture. When you put your core values first and exercise them daily they are not just morally right, you will also literally profit from them.

Walk your talk and as a result you will be the book your people want to read and strive to emulate every day.

Part 1 of this article –Aftermath of Penn State: 3 Questions You Should be Asking Your Teamcan be found here. 

John Brubaker is a nationally renowned performance consultant, speaker and author. Using a multidisciplinary approach, he helps organizations and individuals develop their competitive edge. Brubaker is the author of The Coach Approach: Success Strategies Out Of The Locker Room Into The Board Room, and co-author of the book Leadership: Helping Others To Succeed. He's also the host of Maximum Success: The Coach Bru Show on WWZN AM 1510 in Boston. Contact him at john@CoachBru.com.