Thursday, July 26, 2012

10 Leadership Lessons From the Penn State Scandal

by Tim Kight

1. Great Leadership is Rare & Valuable.
Leadership is not a difference maker. It is the difference maker. The decisions and actions of leaders have a profound impact on the organization, it's people, and it's customers. For decades to come, Penn State will be defined not by what Jerry Sandusky did, but by what Penn State leaders failed to do. For leaders everywhere, the question is not, "Will you make a difference?" The real question is "What difference will you make?"

2. Culture is The Single Most Powerful Force in an Organization.
Culture is what leads when no one is watching. More than strategy or chain-of-command, culture is the driving force behind how and why people in an organization behave the way they do. And culture is extremely difficult to change. Culture is defined as: the thoughts and beliefs that drive behavior, and the experience people have working in an organization. It is now evident that a very dangerous culture existed at Penn State. It was a culture of adoration, idolization, protection, and minimal accountability. This culture ultimately drove, and continues to drive, the behavior of the PSU leaders, employees, and the community. What behaviors does your culture promote? What behaviors does your culture reject? Productive behaviors cannot exist in a culture that doesn't support them. If you permit it, you promote it.

3. Leaders Create the Culture That Drives the Behavior that Produces Results.
Everything leaders do builds culture. Through their decisions and actions (or inaction), leaders are the trigger on The Performance Pathway: Leaders - Culture - Behavior - Results. The reason the Penn State culture existed was because leaders allowed it to exist, either by default or by design. Once leaders allowed it, people bought into it and it became nearly intractable. Make sure the culture you create drives behavior that helps people act with integrity AND execute the strategy. Culture is an every day battle. Ignore it at your own risk.

4. Pay Attention to Defining Moments.
Some situations matter more than others. The more difficult the situation, the more important your response. Responding effectively to smaller, less critical challenges does not make up for failing to act with intention and integrity when it matters most. This entire scandal was a textbook opportunity for PSU leaders to take ownership of a Defining Moment in Penn State's history. Instead, they cowered from their duties in spectacular fashion. Not just in response to one Defining Moment, but in response to dozens of Defining Moments over a 14-year period. Culture is built in Defining Moments. When Defining Moments occur in your life or work - and they will - have the courage to respond with intention and integrity.

5. Circumstances Don't Make or Break You. They Reveal You.
Extensive research shows that people do not rise to the occasion. When things are at their worst or most difficult, people do not tend to respond heroically. Rather, they revert to learned behavior. They revert to what they know, their habits. The real culture of Penn State, and the real character of its leaders, was revealed in the way they responded to the Sandusky situation. Do not wait until you are in the midst of a crisis to search for courage, because there is a good chance you won't find it. Build it before you need it. Develop the habit of acting in alignment with a clear and consistent value system. Then, when crisis arises you will have a reservoir of courage to guide you.

6. Trust is Slowly Built and Quickly Broken.
Deep trust takes time to build and is earned through repeated positive experience. Unfortunately, just one act can destroy years, even decades, of trust. In PSU's case it had built a brand of "Success with Honor." Perhaps no university had a more trusted brand in the history of intercollegiate athletics. But the PSU brand became bigger than the principles upon which it claimed to be built, and the house of cards came crashing down almost overnight. One dishonest act, especially during a Defining Moment, will often wipe out years of otherwise trustworthy experiences. There is not a 1-to-1 ratio of negative-to-positive. This is the nature of trust.

7. Everyone Must Be Held Accountable.
Accountability is about two things: paying attention + taking action. Holding people accountable means paying attention to what they do and how they do it, then taking appropriate action. Somewhere along the line the leaders at Penn State lost control of accountability within the university and the football program. They turned a blind eye to critical events and failed to take appropriate action. Further, certain leaders hid behind the false image of integrity and were therefore immune from any form of accountability. This resulted in failure when it mattered most. Accountability in the little things is important because it is practice for the big things. Hold yourself accountable first, and hold others accountable second.

8. Leadership is Not Power Derived from Status or Position.
People often confuse leadership with positional authority. But real leadership is about the person, not the position. Leadership is the courage to act when the situation calls for it, irrespective of your title or place on the org chart. There were people at Penn State other than the positional leaders who could have acted. But they lacked the courage to challenge the authority of other so-called "leaders." Interestingly, the people who ultimately took the action that resulted in Jerry Sandusky's arrest were a gym teacher and a soccer mom. People with far less status and power than the executives and head football coach at PSU. Wherever you are and whatever you are involved in, do not wait to lead. Lead now.

9. The Minimum Requirement is Not Enough.
Champions do it differently. Greatness comes from going beyond what others are willing to do. Those who strive for excellence both personally and professionally understand this. A common refrain from the Penn State situation is that leaders "did what was required of them by the law." While this can be debated according to legal interpretation, it fails the common sense interpretation, and it fails disastrously according to the greatness interpretation. Mere compliance is insufficient. You must make a difference. You must have an impact that results in positive, productive change. The path of minimum requirement leads to mediocrity at best and negligence at worst.

10. Do Not Equate the Delay of Consequences with the Absence of Them.
Problems do not get better if you ignore them or cover them up. The longer you allow a problem to exist, the worse it becomes and the more severe the consequences. If PSU leaders had dealt with this immediately in 1998 or again in 2001, they could have saved dozens of children as well as their university & football program. It would have been difficult and embarrassing, but not nearly as much as their current situation. Are you ignoring problems in your life or work, hoping they’ll just go away? Are you failing to deal with something important? Take ownership of it now before it’s too late.

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