The Moral Compass.
I was going to address this aspect of leadership in a couple of weeks as the third in my series on the essential areas of focus for the CEO, but perhaps … now is the right time.
How could this happen, right? How could a man who, by all measures, has been a moral stanchion for generations of athletes fail so terribly in chasing down the horror of what we now know about the child abuse scandal at Penn State? Even beyond the obvious, immediate damage to the individual victims, what about the shrapnel that has now struck thousands of athletes who proudly spoke of learning under him, the good coaches now feeling their own roles under subtle suspicion, past and future alumni, or the once-sterling legacy of Joe Paterno himself? I believe Joe Paterno is a good man who has purposed himself to inspire thousands of students over his career. Still, it was the board of Penn State that exercised the higher leadership in making the statement through its firing of Joe and the college president that Penn State was bigger than any one person.
It is easy for any of us to feel certain how we would have responded had we heard of such suspicions, and certainly the circumstances themselves seem to warrant such clarity of action. However, it is troubling to me how often I see leaders turn a blind eye or deaf ear to lesser offenses that, in their own way, have a corrosive effect on the sense of what is right and wrong within the culture and behavior of their organizations. Take JoePa and Penn State out of the discussion for a moment, and let’s consider our own moral challenges.
I see even the most capable leaders fail to affirm and enforce the “moral code” of their organizations. The consequences are devastating. The progression is simple, clear and almost predictable.
Ignorance — They are simply unaware or out-of-touch with what everyone else seems to know. (Over time, it is fair that people call it being “clueless.”) Is that an excuse, or is it a responsibility of leadership to be curious, to seek out, to invite contrary voices, to create an environment where the unspeakable can be voiced?
Incompetence — They simply are perplexed or conflicted in how to deal with the issue. Maybe clear action comes with too many risks or trade-offs, or they abhor confrontation, or the whole thing is just too messy and unpleasant to deal with. Take the hit, deal with it. Leadership demands tough choices; the clarity they bring is invigorating. And affirming.
Indifference — They are aware of the issue, they could deal with it, but choose not to. If your organization ever attaches this label to you or your leadership team, it is a hard crawl back to regain their trust. I wish there was an antidote to this alone, but it likely comes in dealing with the two precedents — ignorance or incompetence.
The excuse that we cannot tell adults how to behave, that it is not our business how people treat others, that someone’s value to a business outcome makes up for their character flaws, that we cannot make a judgment when we are not witness to an offense is just that — an excuse.
The CEO holds the moral compass. And everyone expects you to hold it high.