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Partners and Senior Advisors use the firm's blog to write on current ethics and leadership topics.

Drain the Swamp

Louis J. Freeh, the former FBI director who was commissioned by the Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees to investigate recent leadership failures at the University, wrote in his final report, “One of the most challenging of the tasks confronting the Penn State community is transforming the culture that permitted Sandusky’s behavior, as illustrated throughout this report, and which directly contributed to the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders to adequately report and respond to the actions of a serial sexual predator.  It is up to the entire University community – students, faculty, staff, alumni, the board and the administration – to undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture.”

Truer words have rarely been written.  When it comes to organizational ethics, culture matters.  Penn State was plagued by bad actors … a sexual predator and a leadership of enablers.  They are ethically and legally culpable and should be held accountable to the full extent of the law.  But, among the many myths about ethics is the one that assumes that unethical behavior is simply the result of bad actors.  Research tells us that 80% of employees “look up and look around” when they are faced with an ethical dilemma.  These employees do not look inside themselves for ethical guidance but rather look to the behavior of others when thinking about what is right.  We now know the Penn State culture enabled appalling behavior at all levels of the institution … and that culture will not be made healthy by just getting rid of the “bad apples.”

Penn State’s biggest challenge going forward is building a new and different culture.  Critical to that effort will be leadership at all levels of the institution that “walks the walk” rather than simply “talking the talk.”  Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. reminds us in his book Defining Moments that institutional leaders at all levels are “the ethics teachers of their organizations.”

A second myth about ethics is that “ethical leadership is about leader integrity.” Personal integrity, while important and admirable, is simply not enough for ethical leadership.  Craig Johnson in his book Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership points out that, “the practice of ethical leadership is a two-part process involving personal moral behavior and moral influence.”  Penn State has over a decade of leadership that failed to positively influence the moral behavior of others and when faced with a “defining moment” chose loyalty to the institution and its football culture over the safety of child victims.

The obvious question for the board of trustees is how does Penn State as an institution offer comfort to those who have been injured, take steps to insure it never happens again, and regain the moral high ground for the entire University.  That process starts with recognizing the moral imperative to clean up the mess that the board of trustees helped to make.  At Penn State, that will involve economic, emotional, and legal pain, now and for years to come.

And so, what steps should the board of trustees take to begin the process of rebuilding the institution’s culture?  I propose the following:

  1. Close the Penn State football program for five years.
  2. Remove the Paterno statue from public view.
  3. Offer generous financial remuneration to each of the victims.

Some will argue these actions … or at least some of them … strike at the very core of Penn State values.  Others will say the cost is too high or the bad actors are gone, let’s move on. Or mistakes were made but let’s not deny the good that was also done during the past decade.

But, these arguments miss the central ethical point.  Evil has been done; bad actors have been identified, are being called to account, and a corrupt culture has been recognized.  If the institution wishes to build a new and different ethical culture, remunerations need to be paid and the football culture swamp needs to be drained before the hard work of rebuilding can begin.

Morally, the children deserve no less.


Posted in Leadership
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