JoePa and the lost moral compass

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.


About paulheagen

I am an executive coach, advisor and confidant who helps leaders better understand, refresh or redirect their purpose in their business and personal lives. Over my 35-year career as a corporate executive, communications consultant and trusted advisor, I have guided executives through “defining moments” – those unique times when the decisions they make, the words they speak, and the qualities they exhibit can influence not only the destiny of their organization but also their own lives and careers. When it comes to my clients and my life work, I am ferociously passionate and restlessly inquisitive about uncovering the unique dreams, vision and purpose that lead to exceptional leadership.
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2 Responses to JoePa and the lost moral compass

  1. Randy Pound says:

    The wisdom that we need to learn from this very sad and preventable situation is that there is a HUGE difference between “Not doing anything legally wrong” and “Doing enough of what is right.” In reality, people don’t need 20:20 hindsight to realize the difference between right and wrong. Perhaps this situation will lead to a much needed rebirth of old fashioned Courage in our nation.

  2. CJ Squeri says:

    When we are peaking in our industry, career, financially – right in the midst of these peaks there seems to always be “white outs”. Similar to snow storms when suddenly we loose visibility due to heavy snow, rain, fog. Similar to when your driving you’re car and this happens – how you react could save your life or end up tragic. Some Type A drivers barrel through “white outs” believing they are invincible and the present crisis is not worthy of their time, goals, glory.

    Clearly the Sandusky Crisis was a “white out” for Joe Paterno and Penn State. I would stake a bet that they did not seek legal counsel about what to do here. That they knew what the Federal Mandatory Laws require – Each State has laws requiring certain people to report concerns of child abuse and neglect. While some States require all people to report their concerns, many States identify specific professionals as mandated reporters; these often include social workers, medical and mental health professionals, teachers, and childcare providers. Specific procedures are usually established for mandated reporters to make referrals to child protective services. This is quoted from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services, Child welfare information gateway.

    So why would Joe Paterno and Penn State allow a “white out” to result in a tragedy?
    I believe we are all going to find out as this case sets a mandate across our nation to stop this atrocity… But somewhere in this “white out” the vote was to protect the goals over kids at risk lives; the current glory of Penn State and Joe Paterno as they were at the same time winning National Championships and Coach of the year was weighed more important.

    As it says in John 12:25 – The man who loves his life will lose it.
    Google Penn State’s Presidents Name, Joe Paterno Name between now and the end of time..all was lost.

    We need to teach and our media needs to celebrate Leaders who at the Peak of the career faced a “white out” BUT made the right call, it might have cost them their career – but their names are NOT written in infamy !

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